Automation is a topic that has been discussed at length in the air cargo industry but progress has been slow, like the whole topic of digital transformation.
E-commerce has greater levels of automation but shipment sizes and weights make it easier to automate than air cargo.
Speedcargo is a software technology company providing digitisation, optimisation and automation solutions for the airfreight industry, starting commercial operations in December 2020 as a commercial spin-off from the Technology University of Munich (TUM), which has a division in Singapore.
This entity was created under the National Research Foundation in Singapore, which was given the task to automate the build-up and break-down of pallets by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore.
Dr Krishna Kumar Nallur explains this was important for Singapore because it is a small country with a small and ageing population, which is going to struggle to sustain airfreight volumes due to older staff retiring and finding replacements proving to be a challenge.
Despite scouring the globe, there was no suitable solution, which Nallur admits would surprise many people because automation has been a buzzword in the logistics industry for a long time, especially as there are solutions for e-commerce, where packaging is built to enable automation.
He says, “Cargo comes in all sizes and shapes, we call it a high-mix environment. It is also a high payload environment, in cargo you may have a shipment that is 10 kilos or up to two tonnes. When you have that range to handle, it becomes difficult to automate that process with a standardised conveyor belt mechanism, so you need to think differently.”
In the high payload environment, the last-mile motion planning and position loading is complex to handle and this is the solution the TUM team built to ensure it could be done.
From this, the digitisation and optimisation technologies were created because it is essential to know what is being automated.
The space needs to be optimised so all regulations are being followed and yields are maximised, which resulted in the optimisation engine to inform the automation process where to place pieces of cargo.
With funding from the National Research Foundation, the team spent four and a half years working on the problem, including working in a real environment with SATS before commercialising the product in the middle of the pandemic, which Nallur admits was not the best time to bring out a new product.
“What the team realised is you can’t sell the world an automation solution in its entirety because the industry is going through a transformation but it is very slow. The industry is only part way through the digitisation of paper air waybills so going in and talking about automating the entire piece on the ground would have been a big ticket investment without knowing what you are going to get,” comments Nallur.
Working with technology
It was decided to go with the digitisation solution first because it provided dimension inputs for the automation system to handle.
What makes the solution unique is that it is driven by a software stack, which makes it highly scalable and it can handle high volumes at peak times.
Optimising the build up came next using a man-machine interface because it was being optimised for automation but there was space to optimise building pallets being built by people because this provides data.
“We get an enormous amount of data in terms of the occupancy of each pallet and the way the pallet was built up. There is now the ability to track down and see whether the IATA rules and DG segregation are being followed. As an outcome of this deployment initially with dnata in Singapore and trials with a few airlines, we showed that the airlines were leaving behind around 25% of volume on every flight,” explains Nallur.
Knowing this when you are building the pallet is too late so another solution was created to be deployed to work with the booking engine to assist with planning.
It creates a flight plan using the same principle as unit level planning for ULDs and optimisation engine along with the booking, helping airlines increase load factors.
This solution is being rolled out with Etihad Cargo, which ran a test on over 1,000 flights where the airline realised capacity was being sold short by around 24%, of which, around 15% was useable capacity.
“If you were getting a few percentage points of that useable capacity back in your booking system, the net impact on your bottom line is very high. Now, the airline is realising that in the stations it is pushing the bookings, they are able to load this cargo,” says Nallur.
This is where Speedcargo’s digitisation solution, CargoEye is deployed and the digital ULD planning and building solution Assemble is applied to the cargo using real information received inside the warehouse to ensure that all the cargo booked is carried.
Nallur says, “Because you are digitising the physical cargo and you have all the information, in a hub and spoke model, now you have early information in the hub so you can plan all the forward journeys better, increase capacity on forward links and better manage the turn around of cargo in the hub.”
The ground handling industry is highly siloed, says Nallur, because each ground handler works with their own CMS or solution. Community networks and emails are the main mechanisms for exchanging information.
“Through our deployment, we now bring the ability to connect directly through the airline system from our deployments on cargo which is specific to a particular airline. You now have information flowing into your own network with your own data flow engine, which gives you the ability to manage, plan and strategize better then carry much more cargo through your network,” says Nallur.
At the air cargo Europe trade fair in Munich, Speedcargo launched its automation solution, which it developed in partnership with Güdel, where the entire handling process it automated from acceptance to build up.
Güdel is a world-leader in gantry system robots, with eight out of ten cars using Güdel’s press automation for their production, and with specially designed grippers, automation can come to the warehouse. This improves the quality of work and reduces the dependency on manpower.
Using space efficiently
Another issue it tackles is limited space, so operators need to use the space more efficiently. Through simulations, Nallur says Speedcargo has demonstrated that 75% of cargo could be handled in 40% of the space.
For airlines, it is a simple proposition, says Nallur, they can fly more cargo in belly of passenger aircraft. This means they do not have to add flights to increase capacity.
He says, “You can carry more cargo in the belly if you use our solution. We are making operations more sustainable, increase capacity of existing infrastructure and we make the existing infrastructure more efficient.”
The pandemic was important for showing what the future will look like, with staff shortages as people were off sick or isolating, and others leaving the industry and not coming back, according to Nallur. Companies have seen the future and are eager to upgrade, which they will do at different speeds.
Nallur predicts the transformation will take around seven to eight years and at that time there will be no more proof of concepts because automation will be a reality.
The future will be made more efficient and productive due to greater automation, believes Nallur, with improvements being made for infrastructure and in resources on the ground.
He says, “Cargo handling will be much more efficient, smoother and with more consistent quality. That will generate a lot of benefits in terms of the amount of money you need to invest and the return you get.”