The COVID-19 coronavirus crisis ignited major challenges for businesses across all industries, but transportation and distribution companies faced particularly trying circumstances — including the pressure of having to find ways to continue an essential service.
Michael Maris, Director of Supply Chain Solutions at Zebra Technologies, says one of the biggest challenges was an overabundance of inventory. “Nonessential commodities — think sporting goods or apparel — were ordered and have been shipped by ocean carriers. Since many businesses had to cease operations in order to flatten the curve of the virus, inventory has not moved. This has resulted in logistics companies dealing with an abundance of containers and trying to slow down the delivery of the goods and find places to warehouse this excess inventory,” he explains.
The virus itself was also a threat to these organizations. “Employees getting sick crippled many fulfillment companies, and in some cases, even shuttered operations until testing of personnel can be completed and facilities sanitized,” Maris says. “Many companies have set up stations to take the temperature of their employees before their start time or staggering start times to enable the cleaning and sanitization of shared work areas and equipment between shifts.”
The pandemic also intensified the need for hiring. “Transportation and distribution companies have been hiring almost non-stop in recent months to fill logistics positions and keep up with growing consumer demands,” Maris explains. “They were already headed in the right direction, but the pandemic has exacerbated the need for final mile delivery personnel.”
Solutions and Strategies, Now and for the Future
As transportation and distribution companies continue to find ways to move essential goods, deal with stalled shipments, and ensure they have an adequate number of drivers and staff, they’re also taking stock of their response to the crisis. They’re also looking at changes they need to make to their organizations during routine operations. Maris says to expect innovation in areas including:
- Data sharing across the supply chain: Maris says the industry had previously begun converting many manual systems to electronic ones — but expect greater urgency around these projects now. “Recent health concerns will most likely accelerate automated systems and eliminate manual, paper-based systems,” Maris says. “We’ll also start to see a move toward the use of human-readable pallet labels with embedded RFID technology to track the flow of goods and associated data.”
- Employee safety: Transportation and distribution operations are looking for ways to improve their ability to operate while ensuring people can maintain a safe social distance. Maris says these organizations are using mobile computers and Bluetooth beacons to warn associates when they exceed the CDC’s recommended proximity distance.
“Track and trace solutions are also enabling companies to track associates that may have contracted a communicable disease and even allows companies to look at who else may have come in contact with the associate and for how long,” Maris says.
Transportation and distribution companies are also adding daily employee health checks and sanitation of workstations and devices. These added tasks could have a negative impact on productivity and efficiency, so solutions that can help may be of interest to these organizations.
- Operational efficiency: Maris comments that, even before the coronavirus crisis, freight companies were moving toward paperless operations. “Shippers are being urged to use online inventory tracking and routing software systems, such as ocean freight, before contacting their carriers by phone or email, thus eliminating the need to handle traditional shipment documents,” he explains.
Opportunities for Developers in Transportation and Distribution
The issues that the coronavirus brought to light in the transportation and distribution industry are driving the search for solutions and innovation.
“Software development opportunities abound in all aspects of the logistics industry. Just a few years ago, companies such as Lyft, UberEats or DoorDash did not exist,” Maris points out. “And micro-fulfillment companies are constantly looking at how to better handle the logistics needs of an on-demand, real-time industry.”
Additionally, organizations will likely accelerate their technology roadmaps. “The next generation of efficiency and agility will come via the combination of software systems that manage traditional logistics operations, with the latest in automation,” Maris says. “As the use of automation in the logistics industry increases, such as cobots and autonomous mobile robots, the need for developers that understand logistics will continue to flourish.”
He adds, “Many jobs are being created as a result in order to program and support these new solutions. Technology like heads-up displays, augmented reality (AR), and robotics have created a whole new sector of careers, that previously did not exist.”