Horizon Forum seeks the right questions to be asked in pursuit of innovation

SINGAPORE — At this year’s “Horizon: The Air Cargo Innovation Forum” workshop, held on Monday, the star of the show was, of course, ULDs. It wouldn’t be the 13th World Cargo Symposium without a major mention of ULD technology, after all (check here for a report on the IATA Innovations Award finalists).

But thinking outside the shiny metal boxes, the Horizon session also got attendees to question the nature of innovation and how it impacts an entire system. Brendan Sullivan, head of e-commerce and cargo operations for IATA’s “Cargo Facility of the Future” project, kicked off the afternoon by emphasizing that innovation may solve one problem but can lead to other, bigger problems that should also be addressed.

One of Sullivan’s tasks is to determine what the air cargo facility of the future will be used for. “Why does it need to be any different in the future?” he asked. “If it’s just a lot more cargo, can I just make a bigger one? Airports are pretty constricted spaces and expensive to build on, and there are not that many new ones coming up. So we need to start thinking about how it can be different.”

Most of the technologies that provoke the most discussion — e-commerce, drones, automation, augmented reality (A.R.), artificial intelligence (A.I.) — “they’re not the kind of thing you can just throw on top of your operations,” he said. “It’s forcing process change, and a reevaluation of the physical infrastructure that we have.” Also, innovation doesn’t mean regulators will go away.

Another question that Sullivan said needs an answer is, “if you deploy new technology in a facility, do workers need new training?” Also, is there only one facility of the future? “One size did not fit all. Everyone has different risk profiles, and tolerances of risk.”

Ashish Pradhan, global head of airlines at Wipro, said all areas of the supply chain are ripe for technological advancement, especially in the early stages of picking ordered items from a warehouse, and in the secondary stages of how to best utilize warehouse space.

Pradhan referred to the changes coming from technologies such as A.R., virtual reality (V.R.), the Internet of Things (IoT), automation and robotics as an “Innovation Tornado,” a term that accurately conjures both excitement and a bit of a mess.

Some of the obstacles he described were older systems that used to get the job done. “We’re not starting from a clean slate,” Pradhan said. “There’s always a legacy that you’re inheriting.” The challenge, he said, is finding a way to break away from the legacy system and think of solving a problem in a new way.

The second half of the forum was given over to several “TED talk” style presentations from various technology providers who have generally come from companies outside the air cargo industry but have recently found opportunities in the logistics business.

For instance, Serge Hanssens, a partner with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, discussed how some consumer-friendly tech, like digital smart identity and biometrics, which has popular uses in passenger railcars, can find new uses in high-speed recognition of cargo passing through various points along the supply chain.

Next, Harald Sieke, of the Fraunhofer Institute, discussed how A.R. can improve training outcomes for cargo workers learning how to build a ULD to the proper dimensions in real space.  

The common mobile app can be used to simplify labor-intensive tasks in the warehouse, said  Sabari Ramnath, cargo industry manager for Unisys, while Kim Kian Wee, assistant director of training and innovation for IATA, said V.R. headsets could be used to teach proper cargo placement.

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