Business Topics

Does Technology Hold Key to Solving Transportation Woes?

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MCN Editor Beth Gainer Conversations with individuals in the metals supply chain, regardless the product, invariably turn to the supremely tight conditions the transportation network is operating under. Finding an available truck is as difficult as securing hot-rolled coil on the spot market. Combating the conditions may require turning to technology. In fact, AI and other technological innovations are bright spots that hold promise to solve numerous problems in the transportation industry.

“Many people find transportation and logistics to be a constant source of stress: stress related to finding drivers, stress about wasted miles and cost, stress surrounding regulatory issues or insurance, stress related to the ongoing tension between dispatching, sales, the warehouse, and more,” says Mike Bjerke, managing partner of Transview Logistics LLC, Boulder, Colo. With deep roots in the metals business, Transview is focused on and dedicated to service centers. 

“What these same people don’t realize is that all these issues can be addressed through technological improvement – there are systems out there that legitimately streamline and support these processes so that the easy stuff is automated, the hard stuff can be focused on, and the whole team is reading from the same sheet of music and working together to solve problems.”

One such technological improvement is Glass TMS, which the company sells. Glass TMS is a transportation management system focusing on operational improvement and efficiency in the metals industry. “Our goal is to help our clients transform their operations and become best-in-class organizations that are efficient, profitable and enduring,” says Bjerke. The Artificial Intelligence product helps solve loading and routing problems, working alongside “a common carrier bidding platform, GPS truck tracking and delivery notification modules.”

Glass TMS helps “consolidate loads, reduce miles driven, reduce traffic delays and tolls, as well as provide common carrier bidding platforms” says Bjerke. “The idea that the human brain – the dispatcher – is going to figure out the most optimal combination of loads and routes on their first try is, obviously, absurd.” 

Bob Elkins, senior vice president, industry vertical operations, Ruan Transportation Management Systems, Des Moines, Iowa., agrees that technology is a great asset to the trucking industry. “Electronic logging devices and mobility platforms are making the job simpler for our drivers, reducing time spent on paperwork or unnecessary processes. The emerging Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality technology are incredibly beneficial for our industry. AR, coupled with visual learning models, allows workers to perform simple tasks outside of their immediate areas of responsibility, reducing dependency. Essentially, a less-experienced person could complete a more sophisticated process by leveraging a wearable computer or mobile device.”

“In another application, heads-up displays could project relevant information on windshields, like driving speed, weather updates, and approaching road delays,” Elkins continues. “AR could also help transform warehouse processes as well. Some software is able to recognize serial and barcode numbers, identify objects and also help employees navigate the warehousing floor to expedite the picking process. This technology could reduce training time and costs, and it is virtually error-free.”

“Another significant AI capability is predictive analysis, where computers can find patterns and reach decisions that are outside of a human’s capacity to process. Predictive analysis also has applicability in fleet maintenance,” says Elkins. “As computers on wheels, trucks produce a multitude of data. That data, if analyzed correctly, can be used to predict and then prevent breakdowns by notifying maintenance teams of necessary preventive maintenance before an issue arises. This technology could reduce downtime and potentially maintenance spend.”

Ruan recently partnered with Mastery Logistics Systems to leverage its software as part of its TMS. “Mastery’s MasterMind is the first cloud-based SaaS TMS for shippers, brokers and carriers to support all business units and operations in one place for ultimate visibility, control, and efficiency. Utilizing high quality technology helps us provide exceptional service to our customers, but importantly, it also attracts the best IT and logistics team members,” Elkins says. 

Of course, one area of technological development that could revolutionize the industry remains a source of considerable debate – the emergence of autonomous vehicles. 

Bjerke believes autonomous vehicles will eventually come to fruition. “I think it is only a matter of time before fully autonomous, driverless vehicles are a reality but someone – or something – will still need to plan their loads and manage their execution, and we are excited to be a part of that process,” he says.

Avery Vise, vice president, trucking at FTR Transportation Intelligence in Bloomington, Ind., agrees. “Fully autonomous trucks are definitely something on the horizon,” he says. “We think that within the next four to five years or so, we will be seeing some commercially viable small-scale operations, particularly in uncongested or low-congestion areas and places where vehicle speeds can be fairly steady.” He estimates that it will take at least a decade for autonomous trucks to be viable and a very long time to become the dominant model.

Dearborn Steel Express co-owner Jan Richter does not believe autonomous trucks are the solution. “For what we do, I don’t ever see [autonomous trucking] happening,” he says, adding that a computer making driving decisions for a heavy, steel-hauling truck can be a disaster. Brent Brodie, owner of KCG Transportation, Inc., Clarksville, Tenn., agrees. He doubts that autonomous vehicles will ever be on the road. “I would be scared to death to have a truck coming toward me without a driver.”

Vise believes electric vehicles will be in place faster than autonomous ones due to regulatory issues. “California is pushing that, for example, very strongly. And assuming that goes through, the economies of scale that will come from California requiring it are going to bleed over into the rest of the market, bringing the cost down.” 

He says there are engineering benefits of electric vehicles, such as longer component life than those with diesel engines, as well its effect on the environment. “However, that’s really not as clear cut as it seems because the charging infrastructure required in order to use electric vehicles is substantial, and if you’re using fossil fuels to generate that electricity, it’s not crystal clear that you have a substantial benefit,” he says. “By and large, most people agree that electric is ultimately preferable from a carbon standpoint, but the differential between electric and diesel might not be as great as people think.”

Richter, who is originally from Germany, notes that Europe is more environmentally conscious than the U.S.: “Europe is starting to get away from diesel due to its environmental impact, and eventually the road will lead us to electrical or hybrid trucks, but at this point that is many years away,” he says. He explains that, for trucking, Europe is experimenting with a technology often used with trains: overhead power lines. Trucks are retrofitted with an extendable or retractable apparatus that reaches up to touch the power lines. This powers the trucks for a several-mile stretch of highway. This technology for trucks might be many years away, he adds.