Four Top Tips for Distribution Networks Feeling the Heat to Pick Up Speed Amidst Driver Shortages

With customers demanding more and drivers in high demand, transportation and logistics providers should take these simple steps to keep operations from derailing – and take advantage of a hot growth opportunity.

Trucks pull in and out of a distribution center loading area
by Lorna Hopkin
July 22, 2021

The global pandemic has changed us. The way we feel. The way we think. The way we act.

An afternoon shopping trip, previously a treat with friends or family, now fills me with faint feelings of unease. What new processes do I need to navigate? Where do I stand? Will people respect social distancing around me? Whilst I still find myself trekking off to the shops, it is now more from necessity than desire.

This hesitancy to hit the high street sits on top of a lengthy stint of forced change. Lockdown enforced a change to the way we transact. We lost, overnight, the ability to assess many purchases ahead of buying via touch, smell, sight, sound, even taste. And bar a few misfitting dresses with labels still on, some shoes for the boys to “grow into,” and some undersized seat cushions, the experience wasn’t all so bad.

I no longer groan to see grocery bookings fully taken weeks ahead. Or see a 50th birthday card delivered weeks after the big day. These issues are no more. Next day delivery is normal again (at least where I am in the UK).

And with a host of new apps on my phone for favourite clothing brands, marketplace platforms, do-it-yourself (DIY) retailers and supermarkets, my shopping takes moments – not hours or afternoons. I no longer forget to stock up on floor cleaner, buy school uniforms for fast growing children, or birthday presents for friends and family, as its all at my fingertips. DIY inspirations are planned and purchased with time, transport and be-bothered-ness barriers mown down. I’m shopping more frequently, spending more, and I am more varied in my purchases.

Life, for me, is much easier. But this change has been fast – and at scale. With billions of people changing their behaviour, literally overnight, what are the impacts of such rapid, momentous change on our global supply chains?

The arteries, veins and capillaries of society, our distribution network, is under immense pressure to satisfy the exponential increase in home delivery, with demanding customers wanting more variation, greater volume, and all of it right now.

On a micro level, my dad runs a successful haulier business, conceived in the 1970s with a fleet of 50 trucks. He has had to take down signage attracting new business as they are at full capacity. The business is creaking at the seams with every warehouse, truck and driver maxed out. He sees a drivers’ market with lucrative salaries up for grabs as demand outstrips supply.

With so much opportunity yet market forces holding back unbridled growth, transportation costs are creeping up. Air freight has leapt in price because passenger flights have been cut, and with it the cargo space used for transportation. Fewer flights mean less freight – and costs 2-3x pre pandemic.

Yet, when demand outstrips supply, opportunity lies for those who can adapt. And when growth is restricted, the importance of efficiency grows in magnitude.

Think of a healthy business generating 10% net profit. For every euro of revenue, only 10 cents is profit. Yet a euro saved is a full euro on the bottom line. Ten times the value of bringing in more business, with significantly less hassle.

Zebra recognised the disproportionate value of a euro saved versus a euro earned many years before COVID-19 came on the scene. This inequality is what has been driving the company’s development of a plethora of cost-saving solutions for decades. The difference today is the impact multiplier. Extra pressure on the supply chain means efficiency benefits have bourgeoned.

Eliminating pinch points, making the best use of time, using every bit of shipping space, and preventing equipment failures are building blocks to a streamlined business that add up to big savings in today’s climate.

As I was pondering these dynamics recently from a personal perspective, I started to connect some dots between the pain points and the solutions I know exist today from my professional life. Though it will take some time to fully repair supply chains and smooth out distribution networks, there are four simple things every organisation involved in transportation and logistics can (and must) do to build efficiency and boost their bottom lines:

1. Let things flow.

Making operations flow smoothly, without bottlenecks or delays, is a great way to improve efficiency. Having a digital footprint for assets moving across your yard is a sure-fire way to optimise workflows. This is something easily satisfied by a solution such as Zebra Motionworks™ Yard, which gives you instant visibility of all key assets in your yard. It lets you check in trailers, detach tractors, and allocate shunters. It also helps you see how best to move goods to dedicated bays, accurately maintain a data trail regarding deliveries, and set alerts. The best part: it enables you to find the best ways to make things flow – the sum of many mini savings adding generously to your balance sheet.

2. Optimise everyone’s time.

The culmination of just an hour saved on a daily basis can add up to huge savings when multiplied across a large fleet, so carefully managing both your time and your stakeholders’ time is an important step in your efficiency drive. For example, a timeslot solution can enable stakeholders from multiple businesses to book delivery slots with clear visibility to everyone. Layered appointments can ensure different areas of your business can have different booking rules. Fresh goods may require an hour to unload, dry goods just half an hour. The solution should be flexible to meet your requirement.

3. Stop shipping air.

Shipping air is detrimental if that space could be filled with fee-earning packages. Using every inch of space in your trailer or air cargo container eliminates the wasted cost of transporting nothing. That’s why every transportation and logistics manager should be looking into a solution such as Zebra SmartPack™, which lets you monitor every inbound and outbound data point from cross docks with trailers to loading stations with air cargo containers. You can proactively decrease expenses and increase performance by identifying and responding to problems. As my colleague Dave Silk explained in his latest blog post, “You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn about your load operations, and how much you can improve them, when you have a clear view of every movement taken, every second and in every corner.” By implementing technology that eliminates blind spots – that helps you “automatically sense, analyse and act on both sudden and subtle issues in the load process that can impact fulfillment and compliance” – it becomes easier to generate ROI and efficiencies while reducing costs no matter where (or how) you ship your freight.

4.  Use equipment that works.

The benefit of great software that optimises business operations is crystal clear. Yet software is only of any use if you can use it. The performance and ROI of hardware and software are synergistic. That’s why it’s so important to use enterprise-ready mobile computers built for the challenges of a harsh working environment and to fully support the software needed to manage daily task challenges – especially those that are data centric. Zebra rugged tablets, for example, have a large, bright screen size to enable better visibility of images, streaming video, and dashboards both inside and outside, day and night. They are fully rugged from the inside out for the knocks and bumps anticipated in a busy yard environment. High computing performance and advanced connectivity let you gain instantaneous access to the data needed to make real-time decisions about where to send resources when. And the tablets’ ability to sync with head-mounted displays and run augmented reality tools makes it easier for you to remotely coach teams at different cross-docks, across the yard, or at the gate on how to adapt task execution. In turn, you and your team are better empowered to avoid delays and backlogs – and recover from them when they occur for reasons beyond your control, such as weather.

One Last Tip

The global pandemic has changed the way people shop, forever. We now buy more to be delivered to our homes, which has added pressure to the distribution network on a global scale. With such powerful forces at work, the impact of efficiency savings has magnified. Maximise the benefit that everything from mobile technology to machine learning and locationing systems can provide to your business and combine a series of money saving strategies as you map out the road ahead. Together, they will make a sizeable difference in how your business – and the entire distribution network – are able to handle the heat rising in today’s world.  

Editor’s Note:

To find out what steps you can take today to lay the foundation of a stronger future business, contact your Zebra representative.

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Lorna Hopkin
Lorna Hopkin is a chartered marketer and has more than two decades’ experience across a wide range of industries including energy, manufacturing, defense and hospitality. She current serves as a Product Marketing Advisor at Zebra Technologies with responsibility for Zebra rugged tablets and solutions. Lorna joined Zebra in August 2018 as part of its acquisition of rugged tablet specialist Xplore Technologies.
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