Together we move goods and people in a smarter way (By Logistics & Transportation Division)

Moving freight and people easier, smarter and greener with the deployment of intelligent mobility technologies is the mission of logistics and transport engineers. The logistics and transportation industries work closely together to provide services from the point of completion to meet users’ requirements for the movement of goods and people.

Emerging technologies are having an enormous impact on transforming the logistics and transportation industries.  The future of transport and intelligent mobility will continue to put the user experience at the centre of all transport decision making, using data and technology to help tackle long-standing issues like pollution, congestion and limited transport access.  The logistics industry is facing an era of unprecedented change as digitalisation of the logistics and supply chains with the Internet of things (IoT) taking hold and raising customer expectations.  Logistics companies are also adopting smart sensors/IoT to automatically collect and process data as well as improve shipment trackability and visibility.  There have also been increasing applications of robotics such as autonomous mobile robots and automated vehicles in sorting centres, micro-fulfilment, and last-mile delivery.

In addition to IoT, 5G would also revolutionise the logistics market with high data speed, improved connection quality, and reduced latency.  5G is also helping to address and handle challenges in the supply chain sectors resulting from the  growing number of smart devices being used.  Organisations are leveraging their IoT to achieve asset tracking, improve inventory management, optimise the space utilisation of pallets, trucks and warehouses, enhance predictive maintenance and establish timely demand-driven supply chain networks.  Artificial intelligence (AI) is also being applied to address key challenges such as the constant changes in processes, shorter product life cycles, and increased demand uncertainty.  AI does this by analysing complex data and forecasting future demand.  Drones and unmanned vehicles are being tested to deliver small parcels to shorten delivery times.

The blockchain is another noteworthy technology that is being adopted in the supply chain.  This can help to standardise and digitise freight documentation so as to establish a database for the provenance of product, authenticity, and enhance product traceability by exchanging information with multiple partners during manufacturing, assembly, and transportation in a trusted and automated way.  Meanwhile, 3D printing is being used for on-demand manufacturing, as well as for streamlining the supply chain as it allows local facilities to 3D print designs as the need arises, thus leading to a significant reduction in transportation and logistic costs and time.

Transportation engineers around the world are becoming increasingly conscious of the value of adopting a more joined-up approach to mobility decisions – from adopting low-emission vehicles, to using data and technology to reduce congestion and improve safety.  Through behavioural learning, intelligent mobility optimises transport networks to provide the most efficient ways of moving goods and people by predicting and handling the possible impact on the people, the economy, and the environment.  The emerging fields of intelligent mobility could be broadly categorised into 6 themes: i) Mobility Pricing, ii) Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, iii) Electromobility and Low Emissions, iv) Shared Mobility and Mobility as a Service, v) Systems and Operations, and vi) Active Travel.

Subsequent to the unveiling of a Smart City Blueprint in 2017, the HKSAR Government has set a goal of progressively deploying technology to enhance traffic management in a systematic and well-planned manner in the Smart Mobility Roadmap published in 2019.  Taking account of emerging technologies around the globe, the Roadmap provides a dynamic action plan tailored for Hong Kong and opens up opportunities for young engineers in the transport and logistics industries to explore the wider application of new intelligent mobility technologies.  Amongst those technologies, on the top of the Roadmap list, are cooperative intelligent transport systems, which enable vehicles to interact directly with each other and the surrounding road infrastructure with the deployment of on-board technology (e.g. in-vehicle units (IVUs) by Radio Frequency Identification technology).  This enables an integration of other intelligent mobility initiatives such as mobility pricing for the first free-flow tolling system in Hong Kong.  This is a technology-based solution to enable the collection of tunnel tolls without requiring a vehicle to stop at tollbooths.  This also allows all technologies to play their own role including services provided by interconnected and autonomous vehicles in the era of shared mobility.

Smart logistics have also been applied to supply chains.  For e-commerce, some companies have invested in innovative data-driven logistics platforms linking warehouse operators, distribution centres, and contractors together to ensure that it can support local and international shipments and last-mile deliveries.  Others offer end-to-end logistics services, including both freight-to-warehouse and last-mile delivery.  These logistic services are available for online and offline businesses which do not sell on its e-commerce platform.  Brands and businesses can use these services to deliver products without investing in their own logistics systems.  Another example is the re-engineering of the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) supply chain which results in better decision-making; lower processing time; better asset and resource utilisation, improved dispatch and shipping; high-quality supply chain management; and better quality control and compliance as the improved visibility of the status of needed parts could lead to more accurate data for supplier management and supplier negotiation; reduced human error and inconsistency; and the value added from performance tracking systems and daily Dash Boards.

Under the challenge of COVID-19, intelligent mobility will play an even more important role in adapting to the ‘new normal’.  In response to the impact of the pandemic there has been  a shift away from mass public transportation, and young engineers should response with a proactive and revamped approach to better integrate our public transport system with the use of personal mobility devices such as e-bikes and e-scooters.  Electrification and shared mobility in the mobility market will also further enhance the integration of transport with urban planning.  Young engineers and planners should be encouraged to apply sustainable approaches to engineering projects by reducing the need for commuting and the movement of goods, thereby encouraging ways of living without the need to travel huge distances and using and recycling of local materials.

The pandemic has also exposed the vulnerability of extended and complex value chains to production disruptions and has driven a surging demand for contactless delivery.  Logistics is in the midst of a tech-driven revolution.  Companies with robust digital capabilities that allow them to provide visibility/traceability of goods and do business online are at an advantage.  This entails investment in technology, such as IoT, cloud computing, automation, and data analytics. There would be a reconfiguration of global value chains and a trend towards placing additional warehousing capacity or dry ports near demand centres to shorten the time of getting goods into the market.  In order to move millions of packages between brands, warehouses, sorting centres, and collection points, 5G, data and automation are necessary to ensure that this undertaking ends with customer satisfaction when package is delivered.  In the long run, robotics, drones and autonomous vehicles would reduce the exposure of logistic service providers to labour shortages amid aging populations as well as reducing human-to-human contact as a preventive measure against future pandemics.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated e-commerce societally, culturally, and economically.  Work and education from home have become a norm globally which were unthinkable in early 2020.  For e-commerce, challenges are intertwined with opportunities.  It has changed the way we communicate, work, study, shop and travel. This is a new normal that digitalisation is for all ages and all walks of life instead of only for the young generation.  Challenges facing young logistics and transport engineers are the ever-growing demands and requirements for  technological advancement.  This requires us to understand the complex inter-relationships between logistics and transport users, technology, infrastructure and commercial operations through intelligent mobility and smart logistics solutions, and to jointly deliver tangible outcomes for our communities.

By Ir Maria LUK and Ir Carmen CHU from the Logistics & Transportation Division of the HKIE

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