Keeping the supply chain connected
Written by: James Atkinson | Published:
Row of trucks parked in front of fuelling COVID and Brexit has pushed a pre-pandemic shortage of approximately 60,000 HGV drivers up to 90,000 (credit: Logistics UK)

The impact of the pandemic and Brexit has caused considerable disruption to delivery of goods in the UK, prompting some transport and logistics businesses to accelerate investment in wireless technology

The UK transport and logistics (T&L) sector has experienced a torrid period over the past year as a result of the twin spectres of COVID-19 and Brexit.

As trade association Logistics UK commented in January: “The logistics industry stepped up to deliver for the nation in 2020, despite facing a worsening shortage of HGV drivers, economic and financial hardship and significant disruption to operations.”

Logistics UK estimates that the impact of COVID and Brexit has pushed a pre-pandemic shortage of approximately 60,000 HGV drivers up to 90,000. This is putting considerable pressure on T&L businesses responsible for moving raw materials, finished goods and waste products around the country in HGVs.

The T&L sector is also having to cope with the huge growth in online retail and the consequent boom in home deliveries. Total online retail sales growth for 2020 was up 36 per cent year-on-year, the highest annual growth seen since 2007, according to the IMRG Capgemini Online Retail Index.

Businesses such as Amazon and Ocado are predicated on home delivery, but other retailers, especially supermarkets, have scrambled to put click-and-collect schemes in place and expand their van home delivery fleets to meet the upswing in demand.

Online sales in turn need to be efficiently and speedily translated into collection from distribution centres and retail outlets and delivery to homes. Good service is therefore essential to prevent dissatisfied customers switching to rival online retailers. The end result is a lot of delivery vans on the road that need to be efficiently co-ordinated.

That being the case, T&L businesses clearly need excellent communications within distribution centres and then out on the road to contact drivers and to track vehicles, parcels and deliveries.

The question is, has the wireless technology industry observed any uptake in investment from the T&L sector over the past year as a result of the pandemic?

Logistical challenge

“Definitely,” says Paul Jenkins, senior account manager at Radiocoms Systems. “Managing any large workforce is always a logistical challenge. Adding in the disruption and limitations the pandemic brought highlighted how the T&L industry needed to ensure that their networks could perform throughout lockdown measures. Digital transformation plans were accelerated, and equipment was deployed at a much greater rate than we have witnessed before.”

According to Jenkins, key pain points that needed to be immediately addressed included: “Integrating with existing workflows, supporting an increase in business demand or social distancing protocols as workloads increased, while also minimising disruption to employees who had limited time to support the training of new technologies. We needed to ensure that whatever communication solution was specified and deployed, it supported both current and future requirements.”

His fellow Radiocoms senior account manager, Julie Lewis, cites a pre-pandemic Motorola Solutions survey, which identified that 92 per cent of the 400 T&L organisations wanted streamlined integration across their devices. This was in order to respond faster in emergency situations and support onsite inter-team communications, while also enabling team communications from any location or device.

"Adopting BBPTT has helped to retain in-vehicle connections and eliminated communication barriers”
Julie Lewis, Radiocoms

“This demand on technology has accelerated over the last 18 months, playing a critical role during the pandemic. Adopting technologies such as broadband push-to-talk (BBPTT/PoC) has helped to retain interoffice and in-vehicle connections and has eliminated communication barriers,” observes Lewis.

Andrew Wilson, managing director at Syndico Distribution, agrees that COVID has definitely had an impact on the radio industry. He points out that two-way radio is a good solution for a logistics warehouse or distribution centre, but it cannot provide wide-area coverage for a fleet of 150 lorries travelling all over the country.

According to him, COVID lockdowns panicked some retailers into buying two-way radios to help with their click-and-collect solutions. At the same time, he adds: “No-one really stopped to ask, is that the best solution? I think in most cases, if they had taken more time to make a strategic decision, they might have looked more closely at something like the Zebra Workforce Connect solution to create the fix.”

Unlimited talk groups

Zebra Workforce Connect is an app which turns Android, iOS and Windows 10 devices into a PTT device, so long as it can connect to Wi-Fi or a cellular network. It can be downloaded onto existing hardware to provide the user with instant PTT wide-area communications.

Alex Fryer, global product manager at Zebra, explains the rationale behind the product. “We sell a lot of mobile computers with scanners on them and T&L is one of our biggest sectors. We work with FedEx, DPD and DHL – all the big carriers. They have these mobile computing devices, but they really only use them for scanning.”

According to Fryer, Workforce Connect was developed to try to persuade these customers to make more use of their devices.

Initially designed to replicate a two-way radio, over the past few years, Zebra has added increasing amounts of functionality to the product. For instance, along with unlimited talk groups, it can now support real-time GPS location and tracking services, task management, reporting, job scheduling and playback of voice calls.

“It is a Google Material Design app, so everyone has a consistent user experience as the set-up is the same on any device,” says Fryer. “That enables them to collaborate in a much easier way. It becomes a workforce collaboration platform and it doesn’t matter if you have a Zebra, Hytera or a Samsung device.”

Wilson points out that as demand ramps up, T&L businesses will need enough ‘infrastructure’ in place to support additional demand.

“That infrastructure is not just human resources, not just trailers, containers and tractor units for vehicles, but also comms. More efficient job allocation and the more efficient passing of messages is absolutely key.”

“Using mobiles is a massively inefficient way to communicate,” continues Wilson. “The message we are putting out to these T&L companies is, you don’t need to change your hardware. Just download the Workforce Connect app and you immediately have instant PTT communications on a very wide-area basis with the whole of your driver fleet. It really does increase efficiency in realworld circumstances.”

In-vehicle communication

Radiocoms’ Lewis argues that a single line of communication creates unity across different processes. For example, bringing task management and job ticketing solutions into an ultra-secure, encrypted network created from a two-way radio or BBPTT system has eliminated the need for manual paperwork.

That single line of communication also gives organisations a way to set timeframe targets for resolving tickets and ensure they are meeting their clients’ SLA goals. BBPTT technologies also offer comprehensive dispatch solutions that help to manage disparate radio and cellular users from a central control room.

“This has definitely helped drive forward the ability to support tighter timescales, increase transparency, smarter decision-making and creating relevant data,” says Lewis.

“Cargo and fuel services around airports have adopted in-vehicle communication devices monitored by a central controller. Each device has its own profile full of historical data. This has helped to make better data-driven decisions for their businesses, which has allowed them to easily make short-term improvements to meet a client’s needs.”

Fryer reports that a year ago, some retailers were experiencing chaos after rushing through click-and-collect schemes. This resulted in hundreds of cars waiting to pick up at stores as staff struggled to locate the right vehicles.

Having witnessed this, Zebra worked with Doddle, a click-and-collect software specialist, to adapt its consumer app. “We created functionality so that the store employee could receive a message directly from the person with their car park space number. It was a simple integration, but it solved a huge traffic problem with employees scattered all over the place. It was not efficient before, but now it is a much more streamlined process,” he says.

Automatic tracking of drivers and vehicles is another key aspect of improving efficiency in the sector. Zebra Workforce Connect has GPS, so it can offer a basic service, while Syndico has developed a full suite of vehicle, personnel and asset-tracking options.

Speaking of this, Wilson says: “We are trying to give reseller partners options in terms of being able to pick and choose from different technologies to find the solution that is right for their particular end-users.

“There are a lot of scenarios where just two-way radio works, but now customers want more than just voice. That is why we are pushing our PoC solution so hard and why the Zebra relationship is so important to us.

“There are a lot of scenarios where just two-way radio works, but now customers want more than just voice"
Andrew Wilson, managing director at Syndico Distribution

“If you remove the ties of just having one device and make your solution device-agnostic, that is when you can really offer exactly what your end-user wants. This is how to future-proof your technology as well.”

The ongoing pressures of COVID, Brexit and driver shortages are likely to ensure T&L businesses continue to invest in wireless technology.

Online retail growth may very well level off as the high street re-opens, but many consumers are expected to continue to want home delivery. This is something that should benefit the wireless industry too.

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