Editor’s note: William Salter is CEO of Paragon Software Systems. The views expressed here are solely his and do not necessarily reflect those of FreightWaves.
Huge new strides in technology mean computers can do the heavy lifting of processing data and filtering for exceptions, freeing up humans to do what bits and bytes can’t – make nuanced, strategic decisions crucial to running and growing a business. But, for an ideal result, computers and humans need to work closely in tandem.
The buzz around what artificial intelligence (AI) will bring to the world of freight and logistics is ubiquitous in the media and at industry conferences. So much is already possible. Light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies, combined with AI software, are making self-driving vehicles such a looming reality that the U.K. organization Zenzic predicted in November that, by 2027, there will be no need for road signs. Radio frequency identification (RFID) and Internet of Things (IoT) devices can alert a supply chain manager in Ohio, in real time, that his shipment of frozen chickens in the Netherlands has strayed beyond a safe temperature range or that the container security seal has been breached.
Online platforms are already making freight requests for proposals (RFPs), bids and spot-rate buys more data rich, efficient and fast. The vast data-crunching power of servers, or even your average laptop, means that route planners can solve in just a few minutes the complex challenge of figuring out the most efficient routes for dozens – or even hundreds – of trucks carrying out dense, multi-drop deliveries.
But it’s not about the technology alone. In order to make the most of these astonishing new capabilities, we need to embrace a future in which AI supports and enables human intelligence, bestowing upon us mere mortals what amounts, in many ways, to superpowers. This is more properly called intelligence augmentation (IA) – the magic that happens when sophisticated software and hardware give us abilities to act faster and smarter than we can without them.
Forbes magazine describes IA as “an alternative conceptualization of artificial intelligence that focuses on AI’s assistive role in advancing human capabilities.” Described by IBM, IA “enables cognitive collaboration, rapid co-learning … between multiple stakeholders and subject matter experts where the computer is an equal participant.”
In the sector of the logistics industry that has occupied me for the last 30 years – delivery route optimization – computer intelligence has brought transformative change. Route planning used to be, by necessity, a laborious and inexact process, involving pieces of paper pinned all over a map or at best a behemoth of a spreadsheet. Teams of route planners worked long and hard, often late into the night, to do the best job they could of figuring out the least-inefficient way of sending multiple trucks and drivers from different origin points to dozens or hundreds of delivery locations. Sadly, despite easily implemented and affordable technology that automates the process, many still do.
With this old methodology, even when a good-enough plan is set, it can fall apart before the first truck leaves the depot because the dispatcher might find a driver is unavailable. Or it can become unworkable as the driver finds he or she is about to blow hours of service (HOS) restrictions. Or a customer wants to change or generate a new order after the plan is created, throwing it all up in the air again. From the advent of modern computing, the emerging technology presented itself as a near-magical solution to these problems.
We started with computer algorithms that could quickly and easily run millions of different route combinations and come up with a plan that took the least time to complete all required deliveries, then spin it all up again in a heartbeat when there were last-minute changes. Then we added in the ability to incorporate myriad other parameters that create delays and complexity – preferred delivery time windows, average road speeds, average time needed at delivery locations, congestion zone restrictions, driver HOS status, driver special skills – the list keeps growing.
At every turn, we’ve been able to get closer to an absolutely optimized route plan for our customers’ delivery fleets to follow. We’ve turned route planning into a science.
Does that mean we are close to getting rid of humans when it comes to planning and managing deliveries? No, it does not. What it means is we are providing the people in charge of this crucial operation with the intelligence needed to make smart, sometimes bold, business decisions that propel the business forward.
We’ve watched our customers gain so much confidence in their ability to rapidly plan routes that they’ve been able to extend the order cutoff deadline for next-day delivery, gaining a powerful advantage over rival distributors while still being confident that the warehouse can pick the orders in time. We’ve seen customers close down expensive distribution centers (DCs) they didn’t need or move to DCs in locations that made much more sense operationally. Several customers have been able to expand to serve new regions with existing resources, enabled by business modeling tools that allow them to use actual data to understand the impact of this and many other changes. These were all the result of strategic decisions made by humans, requiring deep knowledge, judgment and big-picture thinking but, crucially, aided by computer programs that could calculate every conceivable impact of doing things differently.
The wider benefits of route optimization software, in the end, spring not purely from the number of miles or minutes you can trim from delivery operations or how much fuel you can save or how many more destinations you can fit into a multi-stop run. The greater advantage comes when human brains are freed from the time-consuming drudgery of planning what trucks go where, when and how. Routing software cuts the planning process from hours to minutes. When transportation professionals go from laboring over spreadsheets to pondering how to leverage better data to truly delight customers, the business – and the customer – wins. It also enables significant strides in sustainability through massively increased efficiency.
The advent of affordable automobiles didn’t just allow people to get to work faster; it generated the Interstate Highway System, suburban living and drive-in movies. The internet does more than allow people on opposite sides of the planet to have a conversation; it has resulted in crowdsourcing cures for cancer, catching international criminals and giving access to university education to people in remote villages.
The real value of technology is in what humans can do with it. In the logistics industry, IA is set to transform how we do business – the only limit is our failure to imagine what can happen when technology empowers humans.