Bio: Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring innovations in the industrial sector.

The technology behind 3D sensors isn’t new, appearing in devices like Microsoft Kinect that graced multiple incarnations of the Xbox gaming console. While it works well in gaming settings, 3D sensor technology is starting to make appearances in different industries, including logistics. How can companies use 3D sensors to help optimize loading operations in the logistics industry?

Relying on Subjective Judgement
One of the biggest challenges facing the logistics industry is that in a world that runs on data and thrives on detailed information, many of the decisions are based on the subjective judgement of the dispatcher assigning the deliveries.

Route planners and dispatchers have all the available information on hand, from the route and possible traffic delays to the destination and the amount of cargo in each truck. But there are variables that even the most experienced route planner can’t control. The weather, delays at a destination, and even the capabilities of the driver all play a role in whether a delivery run is successful or ends in delays or even failure.

Relying on the subjective judgement of one or more individuals doesn’t just make the job more difficult — it can drive costs up as well. Underutilizing a 30-truck fleet by just 10% could require the addition of three more trucks — an expense of more than $700,000, based on current average costs.

Maximizing Capacity
In the logistics industry, hitting maximum capacity in a fleet truck is the ultimate goal. There are three ways to do that — cubing out, weighing out, and timing out.

Cubing out means there is no more room to fit product on the trailer. Weighing out means the trailer has reached its maximum legal weight, which may depend on where the final destination lies. Timing out means it is neither physically nor legally possible for the driver to meet all of their deadlines.

The first two criteria are often easy, if time-consuming, to manage. Each package or pallet of the product has a measurable length, width, and weight, so a bit of addition or geometry is more than sufficient to solve the first two problems.

Timing out is often the biggest challenge, and ties back into the problem of subjective judgement. What dispatchers, route planners, and fleet managers need is more workable data to help them determine the best way to approach each of these challenges.

Introducing 3D Sensors
As their name suggests, 3D sensors use a variety of tools to gather information about three-dimensional environments in real-time. Some rely solely on cameras, but more commonly, they utilize light direction and ranging, or LiDAR sensors, to paint a detailed picture of the back of a truck, the loading dock of a warehouse, or the storage facilities in a manufacturing plant.

When paired with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, 3D sensors can take some of the human element out of the equation.

Machine learning and AI are fairly new in the logistics industry, but they are making it easier to sort through the massive amounts of data the industry generates every year. These sensors are poised to change the way the sector looks at data generation and management.

Providing Real-Time Visibility
For a fleet running multiple docks, keeping track of loading and unloading can be challenging, even with a full crew. A flock of 3D sensors can provide operators and managers with real-time visibility for each truck in the bay, allowing them to manage larger fleets more efficiently than they could with more traditional inspections and maintenance.

The industry is currently at a turning point, incorporating predictive analytics and algorithms to provide unprecedented visibility and transparency in the logistics sector.

This end-to-end visibility doesn’t just make it easier for companies to manage large fleets and growing demand. It also has the potential to save companies money, reduce inventory turnover, and speed up transportation. With enough data, these predictive systems can even analyze past events and use the information to predict future events.

It sounds like the kind of magic that might appear at a sideshow carnival, but it’s not magic — it’s just data.

Improving Last-Mile Deliveries
Last-mile deliveries have been growing exponentially in recent years, with 2020’s pandemic showing some of the most dramatic growth as everyone stayed home and ordered whatever they needed from sites like Amazon and Walmart.

The introduction of 3D sensors in loading operations can help simplify these deliveries. Instead of relying on guesswork and manual scans, a 3D scanner can create a real-time picture of what sits where in the back of a delivery truck.

From there, the driver can move directly to each piece, saving time that might otherwise be spent searching for the package as they reach each delivery point. Last-mile deliveries are going to continue to become more common as e-commerce takes over from more traditional brick-and-mortar storefronts.

Efficiency is the name of the game, and companies need to take all the necessary steps to improve those last-mile deliveries, starting at the loading stage.

Updating Dock Infrastructure
The biggest challenge in implementing these 3D sensors in a loading setting is that the industry as a whole tends to be a bit hidebound. Logistics is faster than some industries, but it’s still one of the slowest to adopt new technologies and techniques. Utilizing 3D sensors will require updating the dock’s infrastructure, installing the sensors and the hardware and software to support them.

Depending on the size of the facility, this can represent a significant investment. The precise timetable for a return on investment will vary depending on the size of the operation, but it has the potential to improve everything from loading optimization to delivery times and everything in between.

The Future of Loading Operations
The logistics industry as a whole, and loading operations in particular, are just beginning to adopt new technologies that can help improve operational efficiency. The adoption of 3D sensors is one step in the right direction, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. To stay ahead of increasing demand for both freight and last-mile shipping, companies will need to navigate these new technologies.