How 3PLs Bring Technology to Infrastructure

Even the infrastructure in the third-party logistics sector gets a technological makeover.

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Technological solutions and data are now more apparent throughout the cold chain, especially within third-party logistics (3PL) organizations. Food Logistics’ June 2020 issue detailed the variety of new applications designed to modernize the 3PL experience, but more than just software goes into updating operations. Along with new apps and solutions, 3PLs are updating the very infrastructure that makes the transportation of cold food possible.

Right now, sustainability and the need to streamline operations drives innovation in infrastructure, pushing automation, electric-powered equipment, new ways of refrigeration and data acquisition and implementation.

Regulations for sustainability continue to grow, prompting 3PLs to turn their businesses toward more ecofriendly operations like implementing battery-powered or hybrid vehicles and heavy lifting equipment in addition to energy usage within facilities.

“Infrastructure in the cold chain has continued to evolve over the years,” says Lowell Randel, vice president, government and legal affairs at Global Cold Chain Alliance (GCCA). “This applies to both facility infrastructure and transportation infrastructure. In both cases, the need for increased efficiency, sustainability and data have driven innovation. Energy is one of the largest costs for warehouses, so the adoption of best practices and new technologies has become a high priority for many of our members.  GCCA has recently developed an Energy Excellence Program to recognize facilities for their achievements in increasing energy efficiency. [Check out Food Logistics’ June 2020 issue to learn more].Trucks in the cold chain feature new technologies.Trucks in the cold chain feature new technologies.Arrive Logistics

“For transportation, we are seeing a move toward more use of electric hybrid transportation refrigeration units (TRUs). This is particularly true in California, where state regulators are moving to require hybrid units to reduce emissions. This is creating a shift in infrastructure among trucks and trailers, as well as requiring infrastructure changes at facilities that need to have the ability to accept plug-ins,” adds Randel. 

“We are also seeing the use of solar energy in both transportation and facilities,” he continues. “Some facilities have opted to install solar panels on their roofs to generate power either for the facility, or for sale back into the grid. While costs of the technology are coming down, we see much of the application of this technology in states that offer strong incentives to adopt solar technology.”

In addition to hybrids and the use of solar, cold chain 3PLs also use fuel cells, battery storage, battery technology like lithium-ion, lighting, variable frequency drives (VFDS) and ECM motors for sustainability.

Some examples of sustainable practices in the 3PL space include Carrier Transicold’s  new solar-power system for trailer refrigeration. Odyssey Logistics & Technology added natural gas tractors to its fleet. And, Port of Long Beach is testing zero-emissions equipment at two of its terminals.

Associations also offer incentives to urge 3PLs to pivot to sustainable practices. For instance, the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council released a new incentives program for natural refrigerants.

Automating the 3PL

In addition to sustainability practices, 3PLs also look for ways to help drive efficiency to support their bottom line and satisfy customers. With so much technology to ease many tedious and tiresome processes in the workplace, automation has become a major tool for 3PLs looking toward the future.

“Automation technologies have evolved significantly in recent years, and more companies are finding automation as a viable option for their operations,” adds Randel. “We are beginning to see an increase in the construction of new, fully automated facilities in the United States (much like those that are more prevalent in Europe) as well as an increase in the integration of automation technologies into existing more ‘conventional’ facilities. GCCA published an Industry Trends Report in February  that highlighted automation as a priority area for the industry. This was reinforced by a recent survey on the impacts of COVID-19 on the cold chain industry where 41% of respondents indicated that they were more likely to invest in automation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (58% indicated no change to current plans for automation).” Temperature in the cold chain is an important factor of infrastructure.Temperature in the cold chain is an important factor of infrastructure.Americold

Technology providers such as Vecna Robotics, Kryon, Universal Robots and Prime Robotics are just a few of the companies who create solutions and equipment that automate the warehouse and logistics process with artificial intelligence-enabled robots and robotics systems take the burden off of human workers. 

For example, recently Vecna Robotics partnered with UniCarriers Americas (UCA) to develop a line of autonomous material handling vehicles for warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing environments. Kryon created ConsoleX, a web-based management and monitoring dashboard that lets users configure, schedule and manage virtual workforces comprised of its robots from any location in real time.

During Modex 2020, Universal Robots showcased a variety of new technologies including a Quick Deployment Kit (QDK) that allows customers to quickly scale for parcel induction, case packing and goods-to-person tasks. The robotics company also revealed Cross Palletron, a solution that utilizes the UR10e cobot to create a fully collaborative and mobile palletizer and de-palletizer, as well as its new RightPick2 platform featuring an intelligent gripper, a vision system, control software and a UR5e cobot. 

Also, Prime Robotics launched its Auto Shelf, a warehouse robotics platform that includes with a patented design that integrates the robot into every shelf.

“The Auto Shelf will change how inventory is handled,” says Eric Rongley, founder and CEO of Prime Robotics, in a statement.  “Prime Robotics has created a new robotics platform and patented all aspects of warehouse and other use cases. Large customers can deploy the system with confidence that not only do they have the most efficient warehouse robot system, but that the intellectual property of the robot is clean.”

3PLs leverage these systems to speed up their processes and make their operations more efficient. These automated solutions also handle pallet loading, sorting, in-warehouse transportation and more.

While autonomous driving solutions are often talked about, there is little evidence of driverless technology showing up in the infrastructure of 3PL fleets. However, it is likely that if driverless vehicles become  more commonplace, they could drastically improve efficiency in 3PLs and assist if a driver shortage is to become prominent again.

The refrigeration factor

3PLs in all sectors investigate automation and sustainability, but the cold chain has another factor to consider—refrigeration. New technologies in refrigeration infrastructure push innovation in the transportation of fresh food, many working to keep foods fresher for longer while reducing energy.

“Industrial refrigeration systems are another area where we are seeing innovation,” says Randel. “The majority of refrigerated warehouses utilize large, central ammonia refrigeration systems to meet their temperature-control needs. However, over the last several years, we have seen the development of new refrigeration systems that are now being considered for new facilities that provide an alternative to large charge systems that are subject to certain regulatory requirements. These new technologies include small charge ammonia systems, transcritical CO2 systems, ammonia/CO2 cascade systems, all of which utilize natural refrigerants that do not contribute to ozone depletion or global warming potential.”

New ways of refrigeration help reduce the threat of climate change, but other technologies in reefer units can help 3PLs better manage food delivery. In addition to oxygen level technology to keep food fresh, these units are often equipped with sophisticated sensors that take the guesswork out of monitoring temperature. While most companies in the 3PL sector have dealt with the driver shortage within the last decade, the refrigeration factor in the cold chain compounds this even more, as it requires advanced skills, training and knowledge to transport perishables. The more user-friendly technology is in this sector, the easier it is to onboard new employees.

“Driver shortages impact the cold chain to a greater extent because delivering refrigerated freight requires additional training and has greater liability and higher capital investment,” says Darlene Wolf, senior vice president of the strategic partners division at Arrive Logistics. “Refrigerated freight is more inclined to closer inspections. Therefore, thorough planning and communication between the shipper and 3PLs are critical to set each other up for success.”

Data moves freight along

With these technologically advanced systems comes a heaping amount of data. This can help in a variety of ways such as visibility with partners as well as planning an effective strategy.

“Overall, there is an increased demand for transparency and visibility in all aspects of the supply chain but especially in the food and beverage industry,” Wolf continues. “There is a huge array of visibility technologies available, including mobile GPS, ELD, blockchain and others. Good brokers can filter through all the visibility tracking choices and partner with the best technologies that help their carriers and customers. When it comes to booking freight, only a few companies have effective platforms that make booking transactional freight easy and with minimal administrative burden for carriers. It’s important to think about your needs/goals when partnering with technology providers and brokers and ask lots of questions.”Even warehouse infrastructure has updated with the growth of technology.Even warehouse infrastructure has updated with the growth of technology.Americold

FourKites released a new visibility solution the offers greater accuracy, from pre-pickup to delivery for less-than-truckloads,

UST Global partnered with Gravity Supply Chain Solutions to develop an integrated end-to-end Supply Chain Visibility digital platform for their clients.

And, Loadsmart  launched Multimodal Services, bridging port drayage, transload and over-the-road truckload shipping, exhibiting full transparency across the entire lifecycle.

Warehouse management system and transportation systems have also adopted these features to provide a better source of data for 3PLs.

“Information technology also plays a critical role in the success of cold chain facilities and transportation,” says Randel. “Warehouse management systems (WMS) and transportation management systems (TMS) are becoming stronger and more robust to provide cold chain companies with the data and information they need to optimize operations. The availability, quantity and quality of data is very important to our members. In addition to WMS and TMS services, the further development and application of blockchain technology can help strengthen supply chains in the future.”

COVID-19 adds another level

Advanced visibility is always helpful with third-party cold chain logistics, but with the recent Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, these solutions are even more important. Added regulations, restaurant closures, grocery restrictions and general lack of labor due to illnesses have caused great pains in the perishables supply chain. These products have a short span of time for delivery before spoilage, even with growing technologies to help prevent this and many dairy farmers dumping their milk supplies. This makes technological visibility solutions that are tied into infrastructure more important than ever.

“Due to the shutdown of schools, restaurants and other large-scale foodservice customers, much of that product is now being diverted to other markets such as food banks, direct-to-consumer and grocery stores,” says Jon Samson, executive director of Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference at American Trucking Association. “However, the mass quantity packaging has hindered that effort. In addition to the foodservice industry, fresh products are also struggling to find a home. A great deal of produce that was bound for similar markets has now been left to find an alternative market. These products are particularly impacted due to their perishable nature. Products like milk and produce that were meant for schools and restaurants are now being diverted to direct sales, food banks or are being dumped or tossed out because they simply can’t find that alternate market.

“There are significant gaps in diverting products, specifically perishable, to a new market or consumer,” he continues. “We have run into two specific problems—the lack of connecting supply with demand quickly should something go wrong and having enough space and resources to breakdown large quantities into a more consumer-friendly package. Ultimately, we have found that we need more connectivity throughout the supply chain, practically making it a web. Understanding that the chain is usually sufficient, but if there is a hiccup then having the ability to branch off and reconnect in a timely manner is crucial during these time sensitive movements.”

As the country begins to slowly reopen during COVID-19, infrastructure in the 3PL space will be an extremely important part of the process. Those that have invested in modern, automated and sustainable equipment may have been and will be at an advantage to handle the “New Normal” that the supply chain has found itself in.

Beyond COVID-19, new energy systems will help poise 3PL companies to be more compliant with sustainability regulations and incentives, while automation will grow efficiency and data can make decisions on what is best for the organization. 3PLs will continue to invest in advanced equipment, thus further driving the sector forward.