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FOR THE LOGISTICS SPECIALIST
Written by Luca Legnani

It’s time to put your data into action: Digital twins in transportation

To say we’ve had a bumpy start to the current decade would be an understatement. But, as the dust settles at the end of a shaky year for all of us, the shipping industry as a whole has emerged as one of the success stories of the pandemic.

But success hasn’t been without its challenges. E-commerce – already at an all-time high – has now reached unprecedented levels. Customer demand is exceptional, and transportation businesses are having to become ever more creative as they try to meet incredibly tight deadlines while maintaining new health and safety measures – all without compromising on cost-effectiveness or sustainability.

As a result, there’s never been a more pressing time for the logistics sector to accelerate its uptake of new technologies to ensure the entire supply chain operates efficiently, seamlessly and safely.

One of the most valuable technologies is the digital twin. A giant leap for the logistics industry. But what is a digital twin? In short, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a virtual, duplicated model of a process, product or service.

One of the first examples of twin technology was during NASA’s operations in the 60s. Their engineers would often create an identical duplicate – a twin – for machines which would later be sent into space. This meant if a machine needed adjustments, wasn’t working optimally, or even broke down while in space, NASA engineers could perform live diagnostics on an identical working system here on earth, should their astronauts ever need it.

Today, instead of a physical model, a digital twin pairs the physical with the virtual through the creation of a digital duplicate.

A digital twin allows us to analyse and monitor operations, processes and service levels – both in real-time and through simulated ‘if-then’ scenarios. So, you could build a digital twin of your warehouse, your global shipping routes, or of just one loading bay, to assess your current performance and discover opportunities to optimise the way you work.
 

Driving efficiency on a local – or global – scale

When it comes to adopting digital twin technology, the logistics sector has a key benefit: many of the key tech enablers needed to power it are already in place. From the GPS monitoring on your shipments, to IoT sensors on your cargo, machinery and equipment – the data from these systems can be used to form an accurate virtual model of operations.

In practice, if you were a warehouse manager you could gather information such as the physical specs of your warehouse, data on your personnel numbers and their activity, monitoring info from any robotics or machinery you have in place, your inventory statistics and your in- and outbound shipment tracking information. Then, you could use all this information to create a digital twin of your warehouse.

With this model in place, if a local lockdown meant your employees needed to work under more strict social distancing measures, an accurate model of your warehouse would allow you to plan how new levels of social distancing could work in practice – before you make any changes.

Whether you trial a new layout of your operations, new workflows, or the introduction of automated technology, you can do so in your virtual warehouse model, and gain a picture of the impact these changes would have on your business, all without sinking costs or losing productivity. The same principle could be applied to creating a digital twin of global shipping routes, including GPS information, localised traffic infrastructure data, combined with regional weather information – both from live data and AI-powered predictive intelligence. This model could then demonstrate how a slight change of route, or even a switch in your shipment type, could optimise your supply chain and save thousands.
 

Make informed business decisions based on real intelligence

You don’t need to wait until something goes wrong to make use of a digital model. If you want to reduce your business’ carbon footprint, for example, a digital twin can help you to limit risk and protect your business while you explore the different ways of doing so.

So, if you’re thinking of making the switch to a new type of eco-friendly packaging that’s more sustainable than your current packaging, a digital twin could run the new product’s spec information against your current operations. By applying recorded data from each parcel’s journey, including any mechanical stresses, pressures, movement and handling, it’s easier for you to discover whether your parcels would maintain their integrity given the quality of your new packaging.

Digital twins are already being used in practice by some of the world’s largest global logistics businesses, like DHL. In their case, DHL Supply Chain partnered with Tetra Pak in Singapore to help them create a digital replica of their warehouse, having already launched Tetra Pak’s integrated supply chain in the region.

The resulting digital twin, launched in 2019, is supplied with real-time data from a number of IoT points within the physical warehouse and its connected transport: for example, it tracks incoming and outgoing goods to ensure they’re unloaded and stored correctly within 30 minutes of receipt, tracks and simulates the physical condition of stock, monitors individual stock levels in real-time, and makes faults visible, all while improving hub safety and productivity.
 

Transform your productivity and gain real-time insights

You can see an example of just how detailed a digital twin could become in the very near future with the Port of Rotterdam’s own Container 42 experiment.

This next-generation shipping container has been built with IoT sensors monitoring almost every aspect of its status: its location, the inside and outside climate conditions, humidity percentage, temperature, detected vibrations, slope and sound and air pollution levels. It can even detect how its contents move throughout the journey and why.

The data collated from Container 42’s 2-year, round-the-world trip will be invaluable to the team at Port of Rotterdam, as they seek to become the world’s most advanced digital port. Not only will more businesses want to partner with them – any resulting customers of either the Port, or services connected to it, should end up with a more satisfying experience.

With the right data, you can make intelligent decisions about every aspect of your business. And that’s the best thing about a digital twin. You can examine how any adjustments you make to your operations will impact your costs, service levels and efficiency in the future – before you invest in any expensive changes.

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