For several years now, logistics has been facing a path of innovation, which will take it to a new technological level, called 4.0 in technical jargon. The objectives are clear, optimize production processes, pay attention to environmental sustainability and reduce errors and production costs. There are now many software and hardware innovations that are creeping into the world of logistics. To better understand how this change is happening, it is necessary to start from the beginning, and first understand the evolution of logistics itself over time.
How logistics has changed over time
When we first started talking about logistics, we were only referring to the movement of objects and goods within a shop or warehouse. The scope was therefore rather limited, and the management of the processes was relatively simple.
Nowadays, the term "logistics" also includes many other aspects and processes, such as product labelling, VAT filing, compliance verification and returns service management. It can therefore be said that the scope of logistics has changed enormously, coming to include many aspects, and their simultaneous management can become very complicated without the help of technology and automation. Furthermore, with online sales growing rapidly, there is the whole aspect of e-commerce to consider, which requires some services from the supplier, which are added to all the other logistics processes.
The importance of e-commerce
Online shopping saw its origins in the early 2000s, but in the last 20 years it has developed exponentially, becoming a valid alternative to in-store sales. Companies have therefore had to adapt to the change, which has particularly affected the logistics sector. In Italy in particular, online shopping has one of the highest growth rates in the world.
The way in which a product can be sold has changed, as has the path it takes before actually being purchased by the customer. There is no longer just the path from the warehouse to the store, but a product can be collected by the consumer in the store or at collection points, or arrive at a transit point to then be sent to the customer's home. There are also various types of deliveries to consider, and parcel tracking. For these reasons, technology and logistics 4.0 come into play.
The new challenges of logistics
Modern logistics has set itself some ambitious goals, which can only be achieved through profound digitalisation.
- Reduce delivery times: Nowadays, the average customer needs almost immediate availability of products. In order to satisfy consumers, companies must be ready, and falling behind by losing many customers is incredibly easy. There must be automation in all processes, from warehouse organization to product shipment and delivery.
- Big Data to predict consumer needs: So-called big data are collections of informative customer data, extensive in terms of volume, velocity and variety. This data, once collected, is analyzed and filtered to obtain a detailed picture of a particular company's customers. Being aware of as much information as possible about potential customers is essential in order to sell well and fully satisfy their requests. You can predict fluctuations in demand, and adapt accordingly, and above all predict if and when there will be peaks in demand, to be prepared to satisfy them.
Technological innovation in industries undoubtedly passes through the field of robotics. It has even become an opportunity to make a real business for some companies, making an investment that can bring many economic benefits in the long term. Cooperation between humans and robots aims to guarantee greater safety for the former, and greater employment for the latter.
However, this cooperation is not immediate. Indeed, for many years it was very difficult to find a meeting point between man and robot. Often the use of machines has supplanted the use of humans, especially in the industrial sector. It could happen that an entire production plant was built to fit the machine, leaving limited space for the intervention of a human operator.
In recent years the situation has changed a lot. Robots have also found widespread use outside factories, operating in the most disparate fields, such as medicine, entertainment, and have also forcefully entered our homes and our daily lives.
This expansion is due in particular to technological advancement, which has also made it possible to design and build machines that are able to communicate with humans, and work in symbiosis with an operator even in the industrial sector. New generation robots assist the worker without replacing him. This dynamic is already present in a sector such as logistics, for example with regards to the goods packaging department or the composition of the various orders. As a result, the so-called smart factories were born.
The birth of cobots
A cobot is an industrial robot, designed to work with humans, and not in place of humans. There is a real interaction between man and machine, which manages to guarantee the safety of the worker and the maximum performance of the machine.
There are three different levels of collaboration.
- Safe work areas: in this circumstance the work area is equipped with special sensors, which detect the arrival of the operator and stop all movement of the machines, in total safety. If any human-machine contact can be dangerous for safety, in this way it is not only the operator's attention that avoids accidents, but the technology itself. Obviously this system works if the work spaces are shared only occasionally and for short periods, otherwise the cobot would have no way to work.
- Shared workspaces: If workspaces are routinely shared, there needs to be another type of collaboration to ensure productivity. It must be possible to foresee contacts, which must be safe for humans, and at the same time the machine must be able to continue working, so as not to stop the production process.
- Interaction in carrying out tasks: the last stage of the encounter between man and machine involves real collaboration. For example, the operator can control the cobot, adjust its force or make it manipulate objects. A true symbiosis is therefore obtained.
Obviously human safety remains the priority, in all working conditions. In fact, there are numerous safety systems, which guarantee completely risk-free work. For example, the cobots are equipped with protections on sharp parts, rounded joints and there are no longer cables or dangerous components exposed and visible, but they are well hidden and difficult to reach.
Advantages and disadvantages of logistics 4.0
As is easy to imagine, the technological transition always has pros and cons. Logistics 4.0 will certainly bring benefits for companies, both in economic and timing terms. There will be an increase in productivity, there will be better traceability of goods, and the safety of workers will improve. Another improvement, which will be a direct consequence of logistics 4.0, will be the reduction of paper documentation.
In addition to economic savings, it will make the company more eco-sustainable and allow it to produce less waste. Obviously, however, the other side of the coin must also be considered. First of all, investing in a new technology is always very expensive, not everyone can afford such huge costs, and the payback times for the investment can also be quite long. Furthermore, in order to operate certain types of machinery, it is necessary to have highly qualified personnel, and it is not always easy to find them.