With the air cargo industry’s ever-present problem of finding enough – as well as the right – warehouse staff, automation would be the perfect solution. Yet, how much warehousing can it cover and how far along is it? One Singapore-based company is developing answers to all these questions. CargoForwarder Global (CFG) spoke to Suraj Nair, Founder & Chief Technology Officer of Speedcargo Technologies PTE. Ltd., to find out more.
In fact, it is precisely this manpower challenge that the Civil Aviation Authority in Singapore (CAAS) called out to address back in 2015, that eventually led to the founding of Speedcargo. At the time, CAAS requested that automated solutions be developed for three warehousing processes: the stacking, storing, and breaking down of air cargo pallets. A call that was answered by a Technical University of Munich (TUM) – CREATE start-up.
German research in an Asian country?
How did a TUM – CREATE start-up come to be involved in the challenge and end up based in Singapore? “The link with TUM, is because of me,” Suraj Nair tells me. At the time, he had already spent 9 years in Munich and was a Senior Researcher at the Faculty of Computer Science, having completed a PhD in Robotics and AI. Among the many projects the university’s large robotics group was involved in across Germany, EU, and other international destinations – one was in Singapore. In 2010, Create Campus was set up, and top universities (MIT, ETH Zurich, TUM) from around the world were invited to the country to research and collaborate with Singaporean universities on problems.
Speedcargo was born
Suraj Nair moved to Singapore, tasked with setting up a robotics group. “One of the first projects was this CAAS project. We received an initial 2 million Singapore dollar funding in 2015, and the project ran 2016-2018. Since the request came from the industry, it had a good chance of success. After 2 years, what we developed made sense and the interest was there to go commercial. A further 4 million Singapore dollar investment was made by National Research Foundation (Prime Minister’s Office), and we moved to Changi Airport in 2018, to collaborate with SATS, which handles 80% of cargo in Singapore. In JUL20, in the middle of Covid, we formally spun off as Speedcargo. Early 2021, we had our first seed round. Enterprise Singapore is our largest investor.”
Meanwhile, Speedcargo is a small, software-focused team of around 10 people, but will soon be doubling its workforce with the addition of an India-based team, as it scales up to meet its first large customer: Etihad Cargo (read more).
Digitize, optimize, automate
In its initial approach to the CAAS project, Suraj says, “It made sense for us to digitize and optimize, and then automate.” Cargo Eye is its digitization solution. Within 2 seconds, it scans the shipments, delivering dimensions, label, and damage information, among other things. Amplifi is the optimization solution, which maximizes capacity usage and hence yields on every flight. Automation will come in the shape of Cargo Arm, which will be designed to correctly grip and carry all kinds of air cargo.
For the automation, Speedcargo brought the market leader in large-scale robotics on board: Güdel. “We had a TUM relationship, and I knew exactly which hardware robot I wanted to use,” he explains. Güdel’s interest in the air freight market had already begun in 2015, so the decision to go to market together was quickly met. “They bring in robotics competence and experience in large-scale system integration, which we don’t have as a small start-up. Güdel industrial robots are designed to work 365 days/year, 12 years without maintenance,” he says, pointing out that these industry robots are also much cheaper than current ASRS (Automatic Storage and Retrieval Systems), and that whilst supply chains work with these robots, this kind of solution is currently completely missing in air cargo industry. The challenge is to shift from the Amazon-style pick and mix of small, standard parcels, to an air freight variant that can deal with varying weights, sizes, and packaging standards. The two companies recently released a visionary animation of how the entire automation process will eventually look like. A vision that is meeting with a great deal of interest “especially in Southeast Asia,” he says, “where governments are planning for large-scale redevelopments.” Aside from the large, bulky ASRS that also consume a lot of power, the main reason for change, is the lack of manpower.
The vision in its entirety has not yet been tested. However, SATS has already trialed the later part of the build-up and breakdown processes, and the “Cargo Eye is already on ground.” Its first users were dnata in Singapore back in 2020, TCS in Vietnam, Swissport in Johannesburg and Tel Aviv, and Menzies in Sydney. “The software is cloud-based. It’s very cheap to operate, and ground handlers can deploy at scale and digitize,” he explains. And now Etihad is on board, too, as Speedcargo’s first global customer. It has opted for Amplifi, Cargo Eye, and Assemble – the latter is a human-based ULD optimization application which is an interim solution until the Cargo Arm is properly launched. Though the official commercial partnership was signed in MAY23, Etihad has already completed an “aggressive 12 months of product testing” as part of a POC signed in 2021. That also involved using Speedcargo’s Amplifi to plan 1300 flights between OCT22 and NOV22 and build a business case.
Based on these tests, Speedcargo conservatively estimates that most air freight providers today still have around 25%-30% available saleable space, which could contribute up to USD 750 million to the bottom line of the industry annually. A highly attractive scenario, so it is no wonder that “Many other airlines are watching what we are doing with Etihad,” Suraj reveals, naming a few in confidentiality.
What goes, what doesn’t?
I ask him about the missing plastic and nets in Speedcargo’s animation video. He confirms that “plastic and nets will remain completely manual, since the value of automation here is too low currently.” Regarding x-ray processes which are required 100% at some locations, or not at others, he answers “we do not interfere in the x-ray process. We work around it. The respective x-ray process will not change. Our interface integrates in the front and back of this very regulated x-ray process. The layout is configurable and process steps do not have to be in sequence,” he concludes, also in response to my question as to whether there is a customs link in the automation.
And how feasible is the installation of the Cargo Arm in existing cargo warehouses? Do they need to be a certain height and size in order to accommodate the machinery? “Completely feasible. Güdel systems are quite versatile,” he tells me, listing a number of brownfield facilities currently in scope. “The height and size depend on how high you want to build your pallets. Most facilities lend themselves to these systems.”
Remaining challenges in the automation process?
“We need people who can take decisions and move forward. What we see is that larger hubs which prepare for large scale transformation would be the first to deploy these in brownfield hubs. They will act as a proof of concept prior to a greenfield approach. It is challenging to find these champions. Technology issues can be solved. Change management is the biggest challenge,” he answers.
And will Speedcargo just be air cargo-based, or will it have multimodal applications? Alongside airlines, airports and ground handlers, the company is already working with freight forwarders, and has had requests from RFS and rail companies. Yet, “we have a very deep understanding of air freight, built from the ground up over the past 7 years. We understand the nuances of why things would fail on the ground. There is much still to do in air freight,” he concludes.
Thank you, Suraj Nair!
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