An overhead shot of cross-docks
By S. David Silk | October 07, 2020

Is It Possible to Ship More Goods Using Fewer Trucks and Containers? And Without Causing More CO2 Emissions?

Spoiler alert: it is! But only if you can see, analyze and make changes to what’s happening inside those trailers and containers, in real time, during loading and unloading.

Do you know what’s really happening inside your tractor trailers or air cargo containers as they’re being loaded? How about your dock? Does your team know exactly what to do every time a truck pulls up to a cross-dock door for loading or unloading? Have they been told how to load items to maximize utilization and reduce turnaround times? And are you confident that trailers or containers are filled to the brim (with product) every time the door closes?

Most likely, your answer to all of the above is “no.”

Now, what would you say if I told you that there is a way for you to see – actually see, both on a camera and a computer screen dashboard – what is happening across your entire loading operation in real time? And that, because of this visibility, you could:

  • Reduce the amount of air that is transported and, thus, reduce the number of trailers or containers needed to ship goods.
  • Reduce overall operating costs.
  • Better manage delivery times to proactively manage customer expectations further down the supply chain.
  • Ship more packages and goods every day to expedite delivery and increase customer satisfaction.
  • Decrease your carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to reduce your carbon footprint and comply with government regulations.

Would that capture your attention and possibly warrant a swift investment? I assume you’re nodding your head and shouting an enthusiastic “yes!” right now.

Peak Season Isn’t Really a “Season” Anymore

With COVID-19 driving billions of people worldwide to online stores and “buy now” buttons triggering frequent orders, cargo volumes are surging to levels typically seen only during the peak holiday season. Shippers literally can’t deliver packages fast enough to meet customer demand right now. (Who knew that we’d once again consider 3-5 days “expedited” shipping?!)

Given that the e-commerce explosion we experienced earlier this year wasn’t a seasonal pandemic-related event and surge demand levels will likely be sustained for the foreseeable future, you have to figure out a way to ship more pallets and parcels without more trucks, containers and labor – and without extending delivery times even further. The only way that’s going to be possible is if you can see what’s going on inside your trailers and containers.

It’s hard to adjust your load strategies when trailer and container utilization rates are calculated using only weigh scales, pallet/package quantities and someone’s (highly subjective) estimation. That’s why many “fully loaded” trailers are actually carrying 30% air.

At the same time, the only way to speed up delivery times is to reduce trailer and container idle times, increase loading and unloading efficiency and improve picking and packing workflows to ensure shipment readiness. Yet, it’s a struggle for gate attendants, ramp agents and load managers to effectively monitor and manage shipping and receiving flows if they can’t figure out where or why delays are happening.

Though measured investments are being made to increase item-level picking and packing speeds inside the four walls, more resources must be committed to improving loading/unloading operations on the dock and inside the transport so that you can:

  • Confirm that every tractor-trailer that leaves your warehouse and every shipping container loaded onto an air cargo plane is fully utilized.
  • Confirm that every worker assigned to shipping and receiving is fully utilized.
  • Increase overall shipping capacity without increasing shipping costs or CO2 emissions.

Do You See What They See?

Most manufacturers, transportation and logistics (T&L) companies, warehouse and distribution center (DC) operators and retailers admit that they’ve yet to attain real-time visibility into every aspect of their operations. According to Zebra’s 2019 Intelligent Enterprise Index study, only 46% of T&L providers, 42% of manufacturers and 41% of retailers have deployed solutions with Internet of Things (IoT) such as mobile computers, sensors, RFID and more company-wide to date.

That means that there are a lot of blind spots, literally and metaphorically speaking. For example, even if there are cameras on the loading dock, workers are out of sight the moment they step into the trailer or container to load or unload inventory. How are you supposed to know if transports are actually full if you can’t see the load being constructed?

That’s why Zebra has been working diligently to refine our SmartPack Trailer and SmartPack Container solutions. You need a way to capture every action being taken during loading and unloading in order to:

  • Monitor load rates, idle times and door open/close status to improve turnaround times.
  • Monitor load construction to ensure balance and proper stacking.
  • Measure volumetric efficiency and load density to improve space utilization and fullness.
  • Provide real-time feedback to workers when needed to improve load quality and speed.
  • Improve worker safety and training.

Through strategically-placed cameras focused on the dock or container load stations, you may be able to capture footage of the loading and unloading process. But those views alone won’t tell you whether or not improvements can be made – or how they can be made. You need a way to analyze the data collected by an IoT network of machine and computer vision-capable cameras in order to understand both what’s happening and why it’s happening. You then need the tools to act on that data in real time. An analysis of historical loading and unloading actions won’t keep underutilized trailers or containers from being delivered today. You need to be alerted to an issue in real time and, within minutes, to be able to tell workers how to correct it before the door closes. Better yet, you need to be able to plan ahead of time how each trailer or container will be loaded based on available space and confirmed cargo volumes for that transport so that you don’t have to risk delays due to real-time corrections.

(Even with proper training and background knowledge, it can be hard for workers to see the root cause of issues or determine why it is happening every time. The human eye can miss things and the sheer volume of data that must be assessed at the same time can be overwhelming.)

The good news is that we’ve refined the Zebra SmartPack solution so that you can now see your loading operations from every vantage point in real time in a centralized dashboard. It now turns observed actions into empirical data so that you and your team no longer have to spend countless hours watching video streams and trying to manually derive the insights needed to make informed decisions.

A view of the SmartPack dashboard next to a real-time image on a tablet

As a result, you’re able to review aggregate loading and unloading metrics and identify inefficiencies in a matter of minutes from any internet-connected device: a handheld, tablet, laptop or desktop computer. You’ll also be able to accurately measure fullness and determine the cause of load quality and density issues so that you can make adjustments that help reduce the time that containers and trailers sit empty and idle – and the time that they spend at the loading station or dock. And, as we continue to expand the intelligent capabilities of SmartPack in the coming months, you will start to see how the system identifies opportunities for action that can improve critical outcomes. The ultimate goal is to take all the heavy lifting off your team. (No pun intended.)

If you want to learn more about the technology powering this solution and the (minimal) investment required to get it up and running, reach out to my team or your Zebra representative to learn more.

It’s definitely something worth looking into right now considering that the pressure to deliver more goods in less time and with a lower environmental impact is increasing by the minute. This could be just what you need to meet growing demand with the transport and workforce resources you have available right now.


You can also get a glimpse at how SmartPack works in this short video:

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