The cargo warehouse of the future

By Robert Fordree, executive vice president cargo, Menzies Aviation

Robert Fordree, executive vice president cargo, Menzies Aviation.

On day two of the World Cargo Symposium, a panel discussion will be chaired by Menzies Aviation’s Robert Fordree. Ahead of the discussion, Fordree has outlined his thoughts on how cargo handling facilities will develop in the coming years.

During the heights of the Covid-19 pandemic the cargo industry experienced exponential growth, which highlighted the need to upgrade current operations to increase speed and effectiveness across the supply chain.

Although the demand for airfreight has started to taper off and stabilise, as a cyclical industry it is still crucial that cargo handlers continue to innovate to deal with high volumes of cargo at peak periods.

At the heart of operations, cargo warehouses play a vital role for storing and sorting cargo and is the area with the most capacity for innovation.

Despite innovative technology, such as drones, autonomous vehicles or robots, being used in similar industries, there is still hesitancy towards implementing new solutions within the cargo sector principally due to associated investment costs, and therefore its digitisation has historically lagged behind others.

Optimising operations to maximise profitability

The cyclical nature of the industry requires cargo operations that are able to adapt to varying levels of cargo.

Handlers are experiencing either feast or famine – excessive levels of cargo and therefore a lack of warehouse space, or not enough cargo.

As most airline customers share facilities, with an increasing expectation for varied product handling, handlers have to constantly evaluate the mix of their customers and piece together the best possible jigsaw puzzle of volume to maximize profitability from the expensive building asset.

The complexity of such cargo operations highlights the need for an upgraded warehouse that is able to operate optimally despite differing cargo volumes.  

The first step towards a solution would be the implementation of cargo dimensioning and digitisation systems, which have the ability to digitally dimension cargo in as little as two seconds.

This imagery can then be uploaded to form a digital record for future claims and traceability, allowing improved cargo management.

Not only will the digital records foster greater transparency and traceability, but they can also reduce the amount of incorrectly located consignments as there will be digital records of all items in the warehouse with live updates and real-time data.

The digital imagery can also be applied to other systems to optimise warehouse space.

Cargo optimisation engines, utilise deep-tech algorithms to maximise the space in cargo warehouses as well as capacity on ULD’s and therefore aircraft by organising and storing cargo in a manner that is most space efficient.

As airlines are increasingly operating in shared facilities and transporting varied products, the implementation of cargo dimensioning and optimisation will enable handlers to use space more efficiently and maximise profitability from their building assets.

Although there are AI solutions currently available to operators which would enable the above processes, these are not yet available at a production level for cargo applications, preventing them from being used across the industry.

Attracting talent

Another challenge that has been well documented throughout the aviation industry this year has been a shortage of labour and recruitment of skilled talent for overseeing operations.

Although cargo has not been as dramatically affected as other areas of the aviation ecosystem, the recruitment and training process can take up to two months, therefore upgrading technology in cargo warehouses can alleviate the impact of labour shortages.

Moreover, it could attract a new generation of workers who are used to dealing with technology in their everyday lives – as digitalisation becomes essential to handlers maintaining competitiveness.

In February this year, Menzies introduced an autonomous robot Mimi, which was developed with BotsAndUs.

The robot tracks goods at every stage of the warehouse process, enhancing inventory management and slot utilisation, which reduces the strain on labour as it automates systems and allows workers to focus on other high value tasks.

Similar solutions highlight how technological advancements are already facilitating increased efficiency within warehouses with scope for further digitalisation.

It must be emphasised that the increased use of technology will not replace the workforce, but instead will alleviate current strains, boost career development opportunities and enable logistics operators to attract the brightest talents.

Realising the potential of the latest technologies

The benefits of new technologies coming on line have been proven – from improving operational timings, productivity and profitability, to attracting talent and reducing the amount of unable to locate consignments.

To realise the cargo warehouse of the future, technology needs to be implemented at all points of operations to create an innovative management system.

This would create a bank of real time data on all activity within the warehouse, from tracking packages and assigning optimised storage solutions, through to a digitalised control tower, to provide oversight of employee performance and welfare. Such a system would effectively solve many of the hurdles currently faced by handlers.

Currently, the main barrier to widespread adoption of new technologies in the cargo industry is mindset.

For this hesitancy to be overcome, there must be a close partnership between airports, suppliers, and handlers to collectively adopt a digital first approach to deliver enhanced customer experience, increased revenue and productivity.

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