AUTOMATION TRENDS AND CHALLENGES IN TRANSPORTING DANGEROUS GOODS

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In just about every moving part of shipping logistics in the modern trading landscape, automation in some form or capacity is present or in the works to better support operations. From robotics to drones to autonomous vehicles, technology innovation is changing the way logistics operates, one bleep at a time. But when it comes to the transport of dangerous goods, there are factors present that create more of a danger when paired with innovation, creating more of a need for risk mitigation measures. The safety and compliance efforts going into transporting goods (particularly if they are dangerous goods) should always be just as important as the level of efficiency of the transportation process.

Drones, for example, continue making news headlines in logistics-focused transportation. Not only do drones provide an emissions-free, congestion-free and cost-effective alternative, but they also provide a new method of competitive positioning, according to Navigant Research. Pharmaceuticals have successfully been delivered utilizing this method of transportation in the last year. UPS is among the big names reinventing the way healthcare logistics is approached after the company announced its new drone logistics partnership with AmerisourceBergen, a pharmaceutical distributor.

“Delivery bots, RDVs and drones are set to displace millions of truck and van deliveries over the next decade, as they are far smaller, more flexible, lower in cost, and naturally suitable for automation and electrification,” says Ryan Citron, senior research analyst at Navigant Research, in a release earlier this year. “These technologies are expected to make last-mile logistics (LML) more efficient and sustainable, while also transforming local commerce and user experience through new business models such as on-demand store-hailing.”

While this is great news for some of the goods transported on a daily basis, drones are not exactly a realistic solution for the case of dangerous goods, at least for the time being in transportation and innovation regulation. That is when the conversation of autonomous vehicles comes in.

When transporting dangerous goods on wheels, what role does the autonomous vehicle fulfill? Let us start with what could go wrong with transporting dangerous goods. In an interesting evaluation of this process, Occupational Health and Safety released an in-depth article outlining the potential risks associated with ground transportation of dangerous goods. These risks included collisions and accidents, emergency response measures, loading and unloading, and the measures taken to properly secure such materials after loading for the ride. In all of these examples given by OHS, a physical driver is needed in some form or capacity, and not just any driver, but a trained hazmat employee. Without the properly trained employees or advances in technology to ensure compliance is met, a physical employee will need to be present for the majority of the “autonomous” vehicle experience, even if that employee isn’t the one doing the driving.

Another important thing to remember when merging technology and the transport of dangerous goods is their compatibility with other important–and vital–parts of the process. In a recent blog from Labelmaster, the concept of a solid data foundation is explained as a key part of a three-pillar system. The company’s VP of Software & Customer Success, Mario Sagastume, reiterates that when one of these pillars is off, the others follow suit.

Technology innovation does not always equal fancy robotics or massive automation takeovers. In some cases, it boils down to a clear set of data that provides a clear view of the big picture while identifying bottlenecks, risks and a lack of resources. It is important to consider the basics of technology before diving into complex solutions. After all, dangerous goods shipping is already a challenge. You want to simplify and support the process, not overcomplicate it. Solutions such as Labelmaster’s hazmat shipping software solution, DGIS, is an example of how data and technology work together for success in hazardous shipping processes.

Whether you’re transporting dangerous goods by sea, road, rail or air, one common element is ever-present: the human factor. This factor is identified in several studies as one of the main culprits of risk when evaluating potential issues in transporting dangerous goods. One specific study conducted by Jelizaveta Janno and Ott Koppel from Tallinn University of Technology, School of Engineering, Estonia, states that, “…the risk of DGT is strongly related to a human factor as all decisions, processes and procedures within a transportation chain are made by different parties involved.”

The authors explain that every part of the transportation process of these dangerous goods involve the human factor in some capacity, as seen with the previous point of autonomous vehicles and the required human presence for parts of the process.

This brings the conversation to the topic of adequate training. With all the technology, innovation and automation in the world, the human factor will almost always be present. This is not a bad thing, it is a wakeup call that technology cannot fix what thorough training, education and accountability can.

In another blog from Labelmaster, survey results from the annual Dangerous Goods Symposium revealed that the complex nature of hazmat and dangerous goods regulations, along with lack of robust education efforts, are causing headaches for a variety of shippers in the supply chain. One survey responder specifically cited the need for curriculum specific to the dangerous goods arena of supply-chain management.

Training and education (on regulations and operations) must be held to a higher standard for those filling positions in the supply chain, but especially for those handling dangerous goods at every level. Without this imperative part of the equation, technology and innovation efforts will be compromised. The investment must start with the employees and with leadership.

Before investing heavily in the next technology solution on the market, look carefully at the internal processes first. Take an honest inventory of how compliance is managed, how paperwork is processed, and the quality of employee communications. Recall the example from the experts at Labelmaster: Technology is a part of the bigger picture. When one pillar is impacted, they are all impacted.

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