While autonomous cars and trucks are being tested, and Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) operate in the industry since decades such machines are seldom seen in air cargo terminals and warehouses. Even worse: the typical air cargo facility looks like 50 years ago, often resembling a museum. And so are the handling processes – mainly manually performed.
Hence, it needs a lot of manpower to accomplish the labor-intensive job, supported by forklifts, tow trucks and other auxiliaries. Barcode scanning and sometimes inflexible material handling systems in combination with the automated storage of goods are still the most advanced technologies. Talking to warehouse staff and management results in the same worn-out answers: testing innovative technologies and time-appropriate new work processes is risky because the outcome is hard to calculate. Hence, it needs a lot of convincing to overcome concerns and resistance. And all that against the background of the persistent structural problems air cargo handling is facing. What’s needed is a lot of flexibility from all parties involved, entrepreneurial spirit and courage to try out new processes.
Innovative systems are available***
This all the more since almost no player ever implemented pioneering technical solutions, that make ground handling easier. Therefore, advantages resulting from AI, robotic etc. cannot be proved and illustrated in daily processes. Studies verify that more than 500 different systems – from robots to AGVs – are commercially available. So for taking cargo handling to the next level, processes must change and funding needs to be secured.
Shortage of workers drives innovation
The alarming shortage of workers is becoming a key driver for innovations and a productive man-machine-relationship. The manpower shortage existed before Covid but got worse during the pandemic and tends to persist. Why? Because in the eyes of many, air transportation is not an attractive industry, and lacking sustainability, progress and profits.
Overcoming the cycle of standstill
To put it in an exaggerated nutshell: The result is a cycle of standstill, caused by hesitance, resistance to changes and limited budgets.
Financially supported with 7 Mio. € of government funding, Frankfurt University and Fraunhofer IML last year started the research project Digital Testbed AirCargo with many partners in the air cargo supply chain participating. This demonstrates a certain mind shift in the industry evidenced by the willingness of the actors to join the bandwagon and their financial commitments.
The aim of the research project is to successfully demonstrate various applications of new technologies in the air cargo transport chain based on digital processes to lift ground handling to the next level. For processing goods within warehouses more efficiently at least two use cases will be tested in a productive handling environment.
Unfortunately, even though the systems are commercially available, it isn’t a plug-and-play process. The first year was necessary to define the most relevant use cases and the requirements needed.
Analyses reveal valuable insights
After sorting out faulty data it becomes clear that an automated AGV capable of uplifting or carrying weights of up to 500 kg fit the need for 90+% of all shipments, except for ULDs, of course. Scientific warehouse analyses showed that a flexible system is needed that adapts to changing operations setups as well as peak times of imports and exports.
Looking at the operations data available, various deficits came to light. To overcome these initial data hiccups, the project team opted for the Manual Process Intelligence (MPI) technology, provided by the start-up MotionMiners. Over 340 hours of data were recorded and revealed fantastic insights into the handling activities: from ergonomics indicators to the distribution of various activities. Most interesting for the project is the usage pattern of forklifts and tow trucks: They were used more often than anticipated, but always for rather short periods of less than 1 minute.
With this data and the lean philosophy in mind, the project team focused on how to increase the productivity of the workforce by reducing wasted time like waiting or transport (with a forklift). On average, transports alone consume 7,5% of the working time, which could be freed with an AGV.
Innovation will be real in 2024
Given the broad foundation of the above-mentioned analyses, use cases could easily be identified. In the months ahead the automated system will be procured, and the use cases upgraded by becoming test cases. Once accomplished, the operational and technical benefits of transport systems in warehouses based on artificial intelligence will be quantifiable. So by 2024 air cargo handling will be supported by robots and/or AGVs. This is scheduled to happen at MUC Airport first.
*** The project is funded by the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport (BMDV).
Partners are Cargogate Munich Airport GmbH, CHI Deutschland Cargo Handling GmbH, Flughafen Köln/Bonn GmbH, Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, Fraport AG Frankfurt Airport Services Worldwide, Fraunhofer Society for the Promotion of Applied Research zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung e.V., Lufthansa Cargo AG, LUG aircargo handling GmbH, Mitteldeutsche Flughafen AG (Leipzig+ Dresden Airports), Schenker Deutschland AG, and Sovereign Speed GmbH.
Benjamin Bierwirth & Manuel Wehner
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