Today’s blog was provided by Professor Michael Kay of the Edwards Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NC State University. This is a reprint of an article he published in Industrial and Systems Engineering at Work. With so many people working from home and social distancing, the issues around “touchless logistics” are going to become more important than ever.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increased interest in redesigning activities so that they are touchless. Most of the current logistics activities associated with transporting consumer goods result in multiple touches as packages are loaded onto trucks and into warehouses and then delivered to stores or the home. For home delivery, single-use packaging is often used to reduce contagion, and, typically, a vehicle delivers to multiple homes along a route, resulting in each delivery to a home containing touches of all the homes visited. Although Amazon uses robots inside of their warehouses and drones are being developed for direct delivery of high-value items to the home, humans are still the most flexible and cost-effective means of loading all types of packages into a vehicle and delivering them to the home. Making most of these existing delivery processes touchless has not been justifiable on economic grounds. Still, ever-increasing levels of automation are likely after seeing the high cost of shutting down much of the economy during this pandemic.
A better long-term strategy is to reenvision the entire process of delivering an item to the home so that it is inherently touchless. Instead of adding extra cost, the use of fully automated (and thereby touchless) loading and unloading processes is the only way to make on-demand, direct deliveries to the home cost-effective. One example of this is a proposed design for a home delivery logistics network. In this work, driverless delivery vehicles are used for transport, and small, fully automated distribution centers (DCs) are located close enough to a home so that deliveries can be made directly from the DC to the home, on-demand, within 15 to 30 minutes. A single vehicle could deliver, for $2-5, all of the items ordered by a customer over several days. When an item is ordered from a store, it is placed in a container and loaded into a vehicle, delivered to a nearby DC, transported to other DC’s as the container makes its way to a DC close to the customer’s home, and then stored until the customer requests its delivery. After leaving the store, the only time the container is touched is when the customer unloads it from the vehicle. Each DC operates lights out, and all the vehicles are driverless and use the same type of standardized modular handling that used in each DC. Fully automated, modular loading and unloading make it economical to have a container visit multiple DC’s while in transit and to build enough small DC’s so that there is always one located near a customer’s home. Another significant benefit of this type of home delivery is that, after a vehicle makes a delivery, it can be loaded with empty containers from earlier deliveries to be returned to stores for cleaning and reuse, making it feasible to reuse containers instead of using disposable, single-use packaging. Touchless delivery and reusable containers are two of the benefits of this type of redesign of the process of delivering goods to the home. More broadly, this type of design would eliminate the need for a person ever to visit a store, which is especially valuable today given the need to isolate socially, and, in the longer term, would make it easier for the elderly or disabled to live comfortably in their home.