A look into the future: Autonomous driving and the impact on yard processes.

Innovation Series – Yard Logistics

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Published on July 19, 2021 – Kiana Bakhtiari, Consultant Yard Logistics at Westernacher

The current coronavirus pandemic is the driver for increasing online trade, which has also led to increased freight traffic. Already, the constantly increasing customer demands for shorter delivery times and the shortage of skilled workers are causing problems for the logistics sector. The ongoing digitization of a wide range of processes also enables the automation of previously manual procedures. Logistics in particular is being actively influenced and processes along the supply chain are being simplified. But to what extent will self-driving vehicles play a role in the future and what advantages do they bring to the yard?

Both on the roads and on the factory premises of logistics companies, machine-guided driving is currently one of the innovation topics that can be decisive for competitive positioning in the coming years. The technology, which is mainly based on artificial intelligence and machine learning, not only offers a lower risk of accidents by eliminating human intervention, but also promotes traffic flow at the same time. According to a recent study, human error is the cause of accidents in nine out of 10 cases. Road closures and the resulting traffic jams could therefore potentially be reduced by autonomous driving in the future. So-called phantom traffic jams could also be avoided through the ability of self-driving vehicles to adapt their speed to the current traffic, which could result in a reduction in overall fuel consumption of up to 40%.

Furthermore, autonomously driving trucks could also help to reduce operating costs and increase vehicle utilization, as personnel costs and compliance with rest periods would no longer be required. Another advantage that would be derived from would be the reduction of idle times.

The development of autonomous driving would also make a positive contribution to internal yard traffic. Normally, when a truck arrives at the yard and parks its trailer in the parking lots, it is then moved to the gate by employees on internal tractors known as MAFIs. Here, the employee is given various tasks that must be driven off with the MAFI. Looking to the future, these processes could be made more efficient by equipping MAFIs with driverless transport systems, allowing multiple fleets to be managed and monitored simultaneously.

The unmanned MAFIs could then be automatically controlled via the yard and be assigned to gates. As a result, employees could focus on new tasks and be used in other areas to take on tasks that have greater value along the value chain.

If we consider the following future scenario, the use of autonomous vehicles in the yard becomes even clearer: An autonomously driving truck arrives at the yard and is registered automatically, with information such as the license plate being recorded directly via OCR integration. The barrier then opens, the truck drives in and the trailer checks are performed. If everything is in order, the truck now navigates itself independently, without a driver, to the appropriate gate at which loading or unloading takes place. The loading activity can also be carried out by autonomous vehicles, which are already on standby or can drive to the gate independently if required. This helps to avoid time losses and make processes more efficient. After load securing and inspection, the truck autonomously finds its way to the check-out again and leaves the yard.

Swap bodies and pallets could also be maneuvered fully autonomously in the yard in the future, and self-driving industrial trucks, such as forklifts, that load and unload trucks could be controlled with an integrated yard or warehouse management system. All of this would enable faster handling of yard processes and reduce the risk of human error. In addition, the use of electric-powered vehicles goes along with a reduction in CO2 emissions in the yard, and the 24/7 operation could be mostly autonomous, to reduce night and weekend work.

Self-drive vehicles in action.

Examples of the use of autonomous vehicles already exist: A port company in Germany has already tested the use of autonomous trucks to handle unloading and loading in practice. Furthermore, so-called “Automated Guided Vehicles” (AGVs in short) have already been used in port logistics for several years and could possibly also be used at intermodal rail yards in the future. In container terminals, the transport AGVs are loaded with containers and independently find the optimal route to the intended storage location in the yard, thereby increasing operating efficiency and improving working conditions.

Figure 1: In a conventional terminal, container handling and transport operations are undertaken individually by gantry cranes, manned trailer trucks and yard cranes.

Figure 2: The system is controlled by AGV operation control software and other programs, whick optimize the collaboration between AGVs and cranes and improve the container terminal’s overall logistics efficiency.

The just-in-time use of AGVs in combination with other terminal equipment, such as cranes, optimizes the process and ensures better transport performance internally. In addition, fuel consumption can be reduced by coordinating the AGVs in such a way that unnecessary braking and subsequent starting at intersections is no longer necessary.

Automation by autonomous vehicles can also play a role on rail yards. In the Netherlands, for example, tests have been carried out with autonomous wagons that autonomously assign themselves to available train paths. This concept would mean that train paths would no longer have to be requested in advance; instead, the “smart wagon” could autonomously check the route utilization and book it, depending on the situation. In addition, autonomous shunting locomotives or autonomous road-rail vehicles could be helpful in shunting freight cars and making them available on the appropriate tracks. Autonomous self-driving wagons would also be advantageous for longer trains, as they could detach from the wagon train and shunt autonomously to the respective destination tracks. The distribution of freight cars on the last mile or in the receiving stations could thus be automated and quickened, which in turn would strengthen the overall rail system and make it future-proof.    

SAP Yard Logistics is a central component of yard management with regard to future developments, in order to be able to withstand competition and to digitize processes in the future. Vehicles are connected to the yard system and can use GPS integration to find the optimal route based on location data. Warehouse gates for incoming and outgoing vehicles can also be assigned automatically, depending on the load and current capacity utilization as well as optimized routing. Yard Logistics also enables mobile apps to replace paper-based lists, assigning tasks directly to vehicles and reporting back to the system. The automatic planning and dispatching of jobs thus optimizes the workload for individual employees and guarantees a balanced occupancy rate. In addition, operations are only monitored by the warehouse control center and planned based on process definitions. In addition, predefined exception handling enables automatic intervention and fixing of problems in the case of exceptional situations.

The feasibility and viability of the concept can be quickly and easily checked within a Proof of Concept. All this can be made possible by using SAP Yard Logistics as a technological platform. Contact us and learn more about how we can digitize your yard processes quickly and efficiently.

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