How Supply Chain Automation Provides Operational Efficiency to the Distribution Yard

Autonomy in the distribution yard unlocks unprecedented operational efficiency for the entire supply chain.

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Supply chain-dependent enterprises are embracing automation like never before. It’s no secret why — automation addresses employee shortages, inefficiencies and safety concerns. But, while autonomous technology is increasingly standard inside the warehouse, there hasn’t been an opportunity to deploy it outside the warehouse doors – until now, in the distribution yard.

Automation’s next frontier

Each year, distribution yards serve as the transition point between the warehouse and the open road for over 20 billion tons of freight moving worldwide. These yards are filled with repetitive, manual tasks that humans perform in oftentimes dangerous and inhospitable conditions, resulting in safety hazards and inefficiencies within the broader supply chain. 

Historically, the distribution yard has been run on pen and paper. Now, automation offers a solution. Autonomous technology in the distribution yard leverages advanced robotics and software systems to complete tasks that previously required manual execution. It fulfills a variety of functions, such as maneuvering trailers through the yard, hitching and unhitching trailers, connecting and disconnecting air lines, and backing into tight parking and dock spots – all without the need for human involvement. The technology benefits personnel and enterprises’ bottom lines with improved efficiency, safety and sustainability.

Unlocking greater efficiency

The distribution yard is one of the biggest efficiency pain points in the supply chain. There are many reasons why, but one of the leading factors is the lack of available workers. Labor shortages mean yards are often short-staffed, making it difficult to keep operations running smoothly. This results in challenges like lack of trailer delays, gate congestion, and delays in getting trailers where they need to go. 

Delays caused by logistical inefficiencies in the yard are so significant that an Outrider study found over-the-road tractor-trailers idle an average of 45 minutes at a time waiting to drop off and pick up trailers. That adds up to more than 10 million days of trucks waiting in yards annually. 

Autonomous technology alleviates the supply chain disruptions that originate from the distribution yard. It leverages real-time location data on trailers to improve visibility, makes docking, loading and unloading run more seamlessly and improves over-the-road truck turn time. Even the smallest amount of time saved from these improvements makes a significant difference – freeing up more than 1 million days to move freight. Ultimately, when companies embrace autonomous technology in the distribution yard the entire supply chain can become more efficient.

Keeping people out of harm’s way

Yard automation also helps protect worker health and safety. Many jobs within the supply chain are dangerous, and the distribution yard is no exception. Distribution yards are often harsh environments that expose workers to wind, rain, snow, heat and poor air quality. These workers also interact with heavy, dangerous machinery in unstructured environments, putting them at risk of injury – or worse. And, when there are labor shortages in the distribution yard, people are tempted to take shortcuts to get the job done. All of these factors create an unpredictable work environment in which the likelihood of accident or injury on the job goes up. 

Dangerous work environments aren’t only harmful to people; they negatively impact businesses’ bottom lines. Equipment damage, worker's compensation, and occupational hazard insurance add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses. These expenses increase with every safety incident. Autonomy offers a win-win solution that moves workers out of harm's way and helps businesses save – savings that can ultimately be passed on to the consumer. 

Accelerating the adoption of clean technology

Freight transportation is one of the world’s greatest contributors to pollution, and yard trucks are a part of the problem. Yard trucks in North America emit an estimated 3.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year – the equivalent of one coal-fired plant. And while there’s no quick fix to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from freight transportation, autonomous systems deployed on zero-emission yard truck platforms could eliminate millions of metric tons of carbon emissions each year.

Autonomous yard truck fleets are a climate-friendly solution. They are ideally built on electric fleets that offer clean, reliable power. These trucks have significantly fewer mechanical issues – and more longevity – than their diesel counterparts. As the planet’s temperatures reach unprecedented levels, there’s an urgency for enterprises to embrace clean technology. And, now there’s never a better time to adopt clean tech given the financial incentives afforded by the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act. As more businesses increasingly replace their diesel yard trucks with electric fleets, it will make it even easier for those companies to bring automation to their distribution yards. 

Automation will power the future

Autonomy in the distribution yard unlocks unprecedented operational efficiency for the entire supply chain. And while the supply chain will always depend on human ingenuity to function at its full potential, complementing human contributions with automation exponentially increases what we can accomplish.