The pandemic has made sanitization and social distancing crucial within communities and supply chains alike. Logistics companies look to protect the front-line logistics workforce from contracting the virus, creating safety regulations, and mandating safety gear at all times at workplaces.
In response to those imperatives, autonomous yard operator Outrider has introduced the first-to-market solution that automates yard operations for logistics hubs. Outrider works with companies committed to phasing in autonomy responsibly.
FreightWaves caught up with Andrew Smith, the CEO and founder of Outrider, to discuss how companies can leverage automation to alleviate concerns about the coronavirus, increase efficiencies and decrease costs, while adjusting to the “new normal.”
“The pandemic has put unprecedented pressure on how supply chains move goods around the world, highlighting the importance of a resilient supply chain,” said Smith. “In the U.S. alone, there are over 10 billion tons of freight that are moved on an annual basis. A majority of that passes through distribution centers. Outrider is focused on automating that critical link in the supply chain.”
A typical distribution center witnesses heavy congestion and is a relatively hazardous place, with heavy equipment regularly moving around. Amid the sometimes chaotic operations, it is common for workers to have to search for misplaced trailers.
“You have over-the-road [OTR] drivers come and drop off loads at these yards. There is a check-in process that can be done digitally, but in a vast majority of cases, drivers would have to get out and interact with people at the yard,” said Smith. “These drivers come from all over the country, and suddenly, you have an opportunity for the virus to spread. Drivers frequently get in and out of their vehicles while dropping off and picking up new trailers, leading to several touch points across the truck and trailer.”
Smith noted that automation can help usher in touchless interfaces, drastically reducing the potential for viral spread. Outrider’s management software component, the platform’s front-end interface, allows people to dispatch autonomous vehicles to move trailers. Outrider’s autonomous vehicles can move around the yard and also have the ability to connect and detach trailers.
Aside from the safety aspects, the site infrastructure of these autonomous vehicles means greater visibility into operations. Smith explained that in the yard of the future, drivers will be able to drop off trailers at a designated location, and autonomous yard trucks will connect to the trailers and move them to the required loading dock or parking spot in the yard.
Addressing labor concerns
In addition, yards have to contend with fluctuations in the labor market. “Finding people to work within warehouses or yards is challenging. The price of labor was extremely high a few months before, but now with the COVID-19 situation, we’ve got huge unemployment. Right now, it might be easier to employ people, but as the economy gets back on track, this will change again,” said Smith.
When there are fluctuations in labor markets, it is difficult for companies to plan operations from a logistics perspective. Automation helps, as it streamlines operations and removes uncertainty from the equation. Outrider’s autonomous vehicles are battery-powered, also removing fuel price volatility.
Smith explained that there is little-to-no direct job loss as a result of implementing the Outrider System. “The reality is all our customers have a hard time filling positions in their transportation network. On average, before COVID, there was already a 30% turnover rate,” said Smith.
Outrider works with companies to determine which use cases make sense and help workers move into other positions within the company. These positions can include working inside the warehouse, driving over-the-road trucks where autonomy is further out, or supporting the autonomous operations of the yard on the back end.
“We also need to account for changes in demand. Everyone has different peak seasons, but that apart, there are also crises like the current pandemic that causes massive fluctuations in demand. Companies can activate additional robots during such times or have robots work through worker lunch breaks,” said Smith.
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