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5 min read

Accelerating the transition to automated and electrified supply chains through SCALE

5 min read

Accelerating the transition to automated and electrified supply chains through SCALE

The logistics industry is currently undergoing three major shifts. Digitalization, electrification and automation have the ability to address numerous challenges faced by the sector. To really experience the full benefit of the shift, all subsystems need to be integrated. The SCALE project is one important initiative towards realizing this. 

SCALE (Supply Chain Automation of Loading/unloading for increased Efficiency) is a research and innovation project co-funded by the Swedish Energy Agency to support resource-efficient supply chains through innovation. Involving six partners – Chalmers University of Technology, University of Gothenburg, Einride, SKF, Toyota Material Handling Europe, MariTerm –, the project is a collaborative effort that aims to design and validate a powerful end-to-end solution that streamlines, electrifies and automates the process of loading, unloading and moving goods.

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Every partner plays a distinct role in the project. Chalmers University of Technology and the University of Gothenburg lead the project, providing a holistic perspective and deep system understanding. SKF serves as the use case representative, addressing real customer needs with tests conducted at their site. Einride and Toyota Material Handling Europe contribute with their autonomous vehicle and autonomous forklift respectively, while MariTerm offers its autonomous load-securing solutions.

The SCALE project has offered valuable insights into the benefits and challenges of automated loading and unloading. The benefits include strengthening the business case for electric and autonomous transport, and enabling efficient operations. Furthermore, automation enhances safety for workers by minimizing material handling risks and reduces goods damage.

“The journey toward a fully automated and electrified freight transport system requires extensive research and dynamic partnerships in order to solve the current challenges. Through the SCALE project, we’ve gathered some of the frontrunners within each field, giving us a proper set-up with different perspectives and competencies,” says Michael Browne, Professor at the University of Gothenburg and leader of the business model research within the SCALE project.

Eliminating automation islands

In order to achieve the efficiency gains provided by automation, it’s essential to have a holistic perspective that includes all parts of the flow. This approach is especially important in order to prevent ‘automation islands’ that occur when isolated individual processes are automated.

Within warehouses and production facilities, many processes are already automated today. The SCALE project’s ambition is to extend that automation flow further, creating a more seamless and efficient flow between two hubs, by automating the loading, unloading, and transportation parts of the logistics chain.

“As transport is automated, the transport chain will also require more automated peripheral solutions such as a good interface for loading and unloading. This is something that previously has been disregarded. There has been a lot of focus on developing automated transport, but there is a need for more efforts in bridging this gap,” says Robin Hanson, Associate Professor at Chalmers University of Technology and project manager within the SCALE project. 

Autonomous vehicle at SKF

In addition to automation, the SCALE project actively contributes to the electrification and decarbonization of the logistics industry, using both an electric automated forklift and an electric autonomous vehicle. By implementing an automated flow for loading and unloading of not just autonomous but also electric heavy-duty vehicles, it’s possible to streamline that process, reaching a higher utilization rate of hardware. This high asset utilization is pivotal for cost-effective electric operations – helping to unlock a strong business case for electric freight. To streamline electric operations further, automating the interface between the warehouse/factory and the transportation facilitates loading and unloading during off-peak hours, enabling round-the-clock operations.

“From a research perspective, and especially in my role as a researcher, it’s important to have a systematic approach and look beyond what’s applicable to this project and how we can apply our learnings for future projects and cases. We’re looking at the bigger picture and how the project contributes to the overall industry,” says Robin. 

An electric and autonomous end-to-end solution

The SCALE project has focused on a complete autonomous flow that starts with Toyota Material Handling’s automated forklift picking up a pallet of goods from the staging area. The goods are loaded into Einride’s autonomous electric vehicle and moved to a second location. The project has also explored different ways of automatically securing the cargo for transport with MariTerm taking the lead.

“Introducing an autonomous vehicle in the flow immediately prompts the automation of loading and unloading as that part is often performed by the driver. Failing to automate these tasks compromises the advantages of autonomous transportation, as resources become tied up at both ends of the transportation process,” says Henrik Bäcklund, Innovation Lead Engineer at Toyota Material Handling Europe.

“Moreover, the true potential of autonomous vehicles is realized by enabling continuous operation, even in the absence of on-site warehouse personnel. These are the types of bottlenecks that need to be addressed to unlock the full potential of automation. Through the SCALE project, we’ve taken important steps to solve these bottlenecks by testing groundbreaking technology in a real customer setting – helping us to further understand the direction for the continuous product development within the industry.”

Warehouse shelfs

Advancing a fully electric and autonomous industry

An electric and autonomous end-to-end solution could accelerate the transition to automated, electrified and more resource-efficient supply chains, fostering greater efficiency as well as increased safety and improved ergonomics for workers.

"The SCALE project has provided us with valuable insights into the different processes and flows, including how everything is and should be connected, as well as the benefits and the challenges of automated loading and unloading," says Pia Wijk, Project Manager Research & Innovation at Einride. 

The benefits include a stronger business case for electric and autonomous transport, cost-effective processes, and the possibility to operate around the clock reducing daytime traffic. Furthermore, there are the sustainability benefits of electric transport with zero tailpipe emissions and reduced noise pollution. In addition to these benefits, automating logistics processes reduces risks with material handling leading to increased safety for the workers and reduced damage of goods.

However, the introduction of new technology brings its own set of challenges, such as managing information flow and optimizing the planning of the production and transportation, requiring a digital-first approach. While automation excels in managing repetitive and standardized use cases, there is still room for improvement when it comes to non-standardized scenarios such as diverse physical characteristics of goods, loading docks, and the vehicles themselves.

“With the SCALE project, the industry is one step closer to realizing an end-to-end electric and automated transport solution. One where the interface between the factory or warehouse and the transport is seamless," says Pia.

Learn more about how Einride designs, develops and deploys freight mobility technologies to accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation.

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