Automation in logistics can mean different things. You have seen self-driving, electric vehicles, robots in the streets delivering goods to houses or stores, impressive warehouses where robots are being used to place and pick goods, and probably many other examples where handling or movement of goods is automatic.
However, these types of technologies are dependent on a couple of things. Namely, digitalization and that information are available to ensure that their operations are the right and efficient. Therefore, to potentially use these types of technologies, we need to ensure that such information is available and correct when needed. Unfortunately, many logistics operations do not have the capabilities where availability and quality of data can be guaranteed at all times. Different systems are in use and need to interact in order for the complete logistics operation to execute properly.
When buying from Amazon or receiving parcels via the likes of DHL Express, we may be led to believe that “all” information in logistics is electronic. The scenario described in Figure 1, taken from one of the documents issued by GS1, is still quite common in Business-to-Business logistics, namely that information between systems used by the different stakeholders involved in logistics operations is communicated using paper (post), or e-mail (pdf files).
In such situations, the same information needs to be entered manually into different information systems (ERP, TMS, WMS). This is neither efficient nor effective since manual errors occur, it's time-consuming and challenging to assess the quality of such information. Hence, a different approach is needed. The first step is to automate information exchange between the different information systems used by the various stakeholders.
Before answering this question, it should be made clear, that with today’s technology, you do not need to replace your existing management system if you want to collaborate electronically with others. Systems that have been in operation since the 1970s have one or more mechanisms available for sending and receiving information electronically. All systems can send and receive some form of an electronic message, and many of them offer a so-called Application Programming Interface (API).
One of the European Commission´s building blocks when it comes to digital markets is the eDelivery infrastructure. It is initially used for public procurement and electronic invoicing, but its use is now significantly extended into other areas. MIXMOVE and its predecessor have been using the eDelivery infrastructure for information exchange in logistics since 2011. The nodes in the network in Figure 2 are called Access Points.
These essentially functions as email servers, but with some added capabilities. They are secure and can process structured information.
If you are involved in logistics operations where information exchange requires manual intervention, using the eDelivery infrastructure to automate information exchange is a straightforward process. You would either interface your existing information system to an Access Point, using the API you already have or connect to it and send an electronic message. In both cases, the information to be exchanged will be using the standards and conventions that already is supported by your system.
When all systems of all stakeholders are connected, information exchange will be automatic. On one condition; that they use the same standards for information exchange. If that is not the case, MIXMOVE will assist in providing interoperability between these systems, as indicated in Figure 2. Using the Access Points, the sender and receiver of information are known at all times. So is the information about the standards that are supported by the different information systems.
The key lesson here is that by using this approach, an automatic exchange of information between different logistics management and other related systems can easily be implemented without having to change your existing systems. The result is the possibility to embrace the opportunities that lie within the automation of logistics.