Towards contactless air cargo operations
Contactless technologies have evolved quickly over recent years in the constant drive to boost operational efficiency, reduce costs, and improve collaboration across value chains. With the onset of the pandemic, an additional health and safety layer came into play, which further accelerated touchless technology deployment.
Given the many benefits obtained from this move and the behavioral changes it invoked, contactless is here to stay. People now expect low-touch technologies in their daily lives. And the good news is that increased vendors in the marketplace, emerging technologies, and new infrastructures (like IoT and blockchain) are driving acquisition and deployment costs down while opening new use cases.The pandemic also cemented air cargo´s role in global logistics and even provided a lifeline to airlines that may have considered it a peripheral business until then. While air cargo benefited from the adoption of touchless technology, it´s still open skies to extract its full value potential. Now that air cargo is firmly etched in everyone´s mind, the industry needs to sustain its digital transformation momentum.
With so many potential applications, where do we focus?
Fast-evolving smart technologies have a broad scope of practical applications across air cargo. From digital sales platforms to self-service kiosks and bespoke mobile apps, advances in the technology eco-system are driving efficiency gains, opening new business opportunities, and enhancing the customer experience. However, every organization´s resources are limited, whether it comes down to people, time, or investment capability. So, considering the broad scope of the air cargo business, where should one focus?
While every company, or indeed individual, may have a different answer, one way to start approaching the question is to adopt a process perspective. And if you start there, air cargo operations quickly emerges as the area with the highest number of processes and handshakes. While cargo sales and revenue accounting are usually managed by airlines, ground handlers – whether airline-owned or as third parties – manage the physical shipment and movement of goods. Operations is also the place where other stakeholders, like customs and warehouse operators, need to work together, resulting in a complex process landscape.
With so many players and processes at play, communication is critical. Yet, with so many technologies to choose from, paper-based exchanges and semi-automated processes still dominate the modus operandi to this very day. And that makes ground handling operations an easy target to start applying contactless technology to boost efficiency and enable real-time collaboration.
Now that we have a winner, how can contactless processes improve handling operations?
Air cargo operations start when the shipment is handed over to the airline or its designated carrier and finish once the consignment is handed over to the customer at the end destination. So, a clear place to start digitalization is to target the many paper-based, manual, time-consuming, and error-prone processes along that journey. This requires collaboration among all parties to agree on a common data set, new processes, role changes, and Service Level Agreements.
The fundamental premise behind the whole digital transformation drive is the need to have better visibility and near real-time information and instruction exchanges between collaborators. This reduces delays and errors, leading to improved efficiency, faster turnarounds, and better decision-making. Following are some areas that are ripe for contactless technology.
- Cargo pick-up and drop-off formalities. Digital kiosks for cargo transfer still have much room for deployment. In today´s world, why should drivers queue at front offices with paper dockets waiting to be processed when they could directly scan a QR code at a self-service kiosk for automatic warehouse fulfillment?
- Guidance to loading docks. Once paperwork formalities are complete, truck drivers are given the instructions to their designated loading docks. Why can´t this process be fully digitized and automated? Technology today can inform truck drivers exactly where they have to go hours before even arriving at the airport.
- Cargo details. Digital channels are available today to share customer and shipment information with the carrier in advance to speed up the acceptance process. It also helps the carrier to plan their capacity dynamically, helping reduce spoilage.
- Warehouse operations. There's an enormous opportunity here for digitalization and digital workflow-driven automation. Dimension capture technology can identify shipment volumes accurately and share the data with load planners for efficient build-up plans. Integration of sensor data helps automate critical processes related to pharma, live animals, and perishables products to ensure their integrity.
- Warehouse handling. Technology exists to automate digital workflows so forklifts can scan, pick, and carry unit load devices along efficiently calculated warehouse circuits. This dramatically increases the speed at which shipments are handled.
Opportunities for the adoption of contactless technology and processes abound across air cargo operations. Fundamentally, it's about simplifying and accelerating each step of the many handling processes by eliminating legacy, inefficient, and error-prone manual interventions. Even tackling a single step if the resources aren´t available to streamline and digitize the entire end-to-end can deliver immediate results. Stakeholder collaboration is key both in the design of the new landscape as well as its outcome.
It begins with identifying the core processes that stand most to gain and picking the right ones as pilot projects. Starting with smaller but firm steps with assigned targets that are difficult to fail will get the process started. Success builds success, and digital transformation can be scaled up gradually with the right technology partner.
Manu Raghavan is a Senior Business Consultant for IBS Software´s iCargo product line. He has over 14 years of experience in marketing and managing large and complex bids in air cargo and ERP solutions. Presently, he is responsible for all outbound and inbound marketing efforts for IBS Software´s air cargo product portfolio.