Why trucking needs to care about augmented reality

July 30, 2014

Recently, I wrote about the potential of drone use in transportation. Amazon is just one of the companies exploring the use of drones for delivery applications. Qimarox, a manufacturer based in Harderwijk, Netherlands, released a video showing its vision for drones in building pallets within the warehouse environment.

(Click here to see a video of Qimarox’s vision)

Now comes a report from global package delivery giant DHL on the use of augmented reality. The firm’s report suggests that augmented reality has the potential to change the way logistics are handled.

The report was developed by DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation’s Trend Research team.

Many people have heard of augmented reality, but may believe it is some Star Trek technology not from this universe. The truth is, augmented reality (AR) is a very real, very useful technology and one that Facebook and Google will likely bring into our living rooms very soon. AR is the “interaction with graphics, audio or other computer generated sensory input that are superimposed on the real world environment,” writes Michael Kaufman in an article on Bidness ETC on Facebook and Google’s AR efforts. Kaufman writes that the expected market in the consumer electronics space will reach $600 billion by 2016.

DHL believes that AR can merge what is real and what is computer generated by adding layers of digital information, such as sounds, videos, graphics or GPS data, in the line of vision with the use of a devices, such as glasses or smartphones.  Google Glass anyone?

Among the companies that DHL said are exploring the use of AR are Google, Canon and Qualcomm. “We can expect the first significant wave of consumer-ready AR products to be launched over the next 12 months. And with concrete business benefits coming to light, experts are convinced that AR will be the ‘next big thing’ in the consumer, medical, mobile, automotive, and manufacturing markets.”

So how does AR fit into logistics?

“Recent developments such as heads-up displays on windshields or use of augmented reality for vehicle repairs from the automotive sector shows how rapidly this technology is developing and finding its way into industries outside of the IT sector. We believe that the technology also offers significant potential for the logistics industry, and are currently selecting cases for further research,” said Charles Brewer, managing director of DHL Express Sub Saharan Africa.

One example of AR in commercial use may be in routing.

“Delivery vehicles with augmented windshields could display real-time traffic data, as well as other valuable information, such as cargo temperature and alerts, thereby minimising driver distraction,” Brewer added.

Also, the DHL report notes that drivers and staff at a parcel hub could be equipped with wearable devices to gain critical information on each parcel, such as contents, weight and destination. This would improve loading processes and reduce handling damages, the report notes.

Augmented reality could improve maintenance and repair services offered by logistics providers if workers are equipped with smart glasses that blend in step-by-step instructions.

In the warehouse, order pickers could quickly locate items and ensure they are picking the correct items through the use of AR. In fact, the report noted that Knapp, SAP and Ubimax are all in the final stages of testing wearable AR systems that would use object recognition software to ensure the proper items are being picked by workers.

Even last-mile delivery could be improved, DHL said, as AR could reduce costs and speed up the delivery process.

“Each driver could receive critical information about a specific parcel by looking at it with their AR device. This information could include the type of goods being transported, each

parcel’s weight, delivery address, and whether it is fragile or requires specific positioning to avoid damage. The device could then calculate the space requirements for each parcel in real time, scan for a suitable empty space in the vehicle, and then indicate where the parcel should be placed, taking into account the planned route,” the report said.

In all, the DHL report notes 11 possible uses for AR in the logistics and shipping environments.

What the report does not mention, but should go without saying, is that technology is changing rapidly and in the next few years, it is going to change trucking. Whether it’s increased use of drones or augmented reality, or some other as-yet unannounced technologiy, I believe we are on the cusp of a sea change in trucking. The type of change that could rival the upheavel brought by deregulation in 1980.  A word of advice, though, if you wish to navigate the waters ahead in the dinghy you’ve been riding for years, be sure to have a life vest on board because you will need it.

The full DHL report, “Augmented Reality in Logistics,” is available online at www.dhl.com/augmentedreality.

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