Five ways engineering can improve last-mile delivery

COVID-19’s impact has changed the supply chain and companies are looking to keep up with growing and sophisticated demand. Technology improvements can help companies get an edge on last-mile logistics. Five methods are highlighted.

By Devin Partida March 4, 2022
Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

 

Learning Objectives

  • Last-mile logistics can help manufacturers improve potential supply chain issues.
  • Real-time information is critical as customer demand grows and becomes more sophisticated.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and simulators can help companies identify gaps and find possible solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the supply chain forever. E-commerce is experiencing more growth than ever, leading to a sharp rise in demand for swift delivery services. Many companies are having trouble keeping up with the likes of Amazon in their last-mile delivery standards as a result. However, businesses can use technology to give last-mile logistics a competitive edge and keep pace.

1. Real-time tracking and mapping

Today’s customers expect detailed, up-to-date tracking for every item they order online. Post-pandemic, real-time tracking will be vital for survival for any company counting on e-commerce. Cutting-edge tracking is possible through innovative uses of Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

IoT trackers can be used to follow the progress of delivery vehicles along their last-mile routes. The tracker needs a stable internet connection to report real-time data. These trackers also can serve a variety of additional functions. For example, companies can track fuel consumption with delivery speed to identify ways to reduce fuel costs.

Real-time tracking for packages and delivery vehicles benefits companies and customers. The data collected during the tracking process can be used to pinpoint inefficiencies in the last mile and identify performance bottlenecks. For example, a few routes might be more delayed on average than others. Tracking data will reveal this pattern and can help logistics specialists solve the problem.

2. Artificial intelligence (AI) customer service models

Post-pandemic, consumers will be expecting more than rudimentary chatbots, especially when it comes to their packages. AI models built for customer service can help businesses meet last-mile priorities no matter the size or scale of their team.

Thanks to machine learning (ML) and natural language processing, today’s AIs can communicate and understand naturally spoken and written English. This allows an AI to fill in the gaps of a customer service team and even improve last-mile query response times.

For example, AI models are being used to provide around-the-clock shipment information throughout the supply chain. Customers can even ask their smart speaker about delivery status and the AI will effectively process that spoken question.

This allows last-mile operations to be functional 24/7, which opens the door to overnight delivery routes that can avoid traffic. An AI assistant could even help last-mile delivery personnel navigate routes and resolve on-the-job issues.

3. Autonomous vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are coming of age at the perfect time as driverless semi-trucks are successfully completing road tests. For example, in December 2021, autonomous trucking company TuSimple completed the first fully driverless road test of its semi-truck without human intervention.

One of the top concerns about the last mile coming out of the pandemic, according to delivery service company Street Fleet, is balancing employee safety with demanding delivery needs. Autonomous vehicles could help companies thrive while finding a balance.

For example, autonomous delivery vehicles could streamline overnight routes, taking advantage of quieter roads. One employee would ride along to run packages to doorsteps. Overnight routes make it unlikely the rider would have to interact with anyone else, maximizing employee safety. Meanwhile, an autonomous vehicle would be doing the driving, allowing the delivery person to focus on processing packages.

4. Logistics simulations

Logistics simulations can streamline last-mile delivery before packages even leave distribution centers. More and more businesses are realizing the potential of Big Data, analytics and AI for optimizing logistics and operations. These tools can allow businesses to maximize efficiency, minimize delays and ensure a smooth last mile.

For example, UPS is using logistics simulations and AI optimization to organize its sprawling delivery network. Network planning tools lets UPS analyze Big Data collected throughout its network and identify bottlenecks and volume patterns.

This allows UPS to anticipate high-volume periods and optimize as needed. AI helps analyze data in real-time and generate predictive models for the logistics team. This technology is widely available, which means many businesses can replicate UPS’s process.

5. Crowdsourcing delivery

Throughout 2021 and going into 2022, the U.S. is experiencing an interesting trend: the “Great Resignation.” Millions of people are quitting their jobs and opting for positions with more flexibility and better pay. Businesses have an opportunity to give job seekers what they are looking for while meeting last-mile needs.

Rapid food delivery companies such as GrubHub and UberEats have built their success on crowdsourcing. These platforms allow employees to choose hours and accept assignments through the company’s app. When new orders are submitted, the app pinpoints a nearby, available driver and offers them the route. Then the app gives the driver real-time directions throughout their route. This enables incredible flexibility through technology.

Businesses can use the same crowdsourcing technology for last-mile delivery. It may seem unconventional, but customers are used to crowdsourcing and it has become a popular employment option. Businesses get to save on vehicle maintenance and fuel, and drivers can work on their own schedule. With so much flexibility, getting packages delivered around the clock is easier, as well.

Innovating the last mile

The last mile has become the most important and complex part of the delivery process. Post-pandemic, businesses will need to use technological solutions to thrive amidst a new landscape of challenges. Luckily, today’s innovations allow businesses to engineer their last mile for speed, satisfaction, and success.

Devin Partida is a technology and manufacturing writer with work appearing at Manufacturing Tomorrow, Entrepreneur, Business2Community and www.DevinPartida.com. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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Keywords: last-mile delivery, Internet of Things, supply chain

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Devin Partida
Author Bio: Devin Partida is a technology and manufacturing writer with work appearing at Manufacturing Tomorrow, Entrepreneur, Business2Community and www.DevinPartida.com.