Transrapid-emsland

The development of new transport technology could undermine traditional forms of freight transport, according to speakers at last week’s eft 3PL summit in Amsterdam.

In the first of a two-part article, The Loadster reports on how a range of disruptive technologies threaten to overturn the established order.

The rise of 3D printing has led some observers to question whether a rise in additive manufacturing could lead to: the demise of global supply chains that have formed such a large part of world trade; the development of drones and driverless cars; and the possible deployment of high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) trains.

Uti Worldwide’s vice-president area sales for Europe, Middle East and North Africa, Cor de Man, told delegates that some of these developments could threaten current transportation systems. In particular, he said, the creation of maglev trains running in evacuated air tunnels – known as vactrains – where there is almost no air resistance, represented a serious threat to the air freight industry if the train technology gained widespread adoption.

“For me, this is the future,” he said. “If we run a train in a tube you can go up to 800kph, which could completely change the supply chain. The environmental impact of these technologies is almost negligible, and the effect on the 3PL industry will be high – this could replace aviation altogether in some lanes.”.

In fact, vactrain proponents argue that speeds of up to 6,000kph could theoretically be reached, which would mean a two-hour journey between Beijing and New York. Maglev technology is already deployed in some parts of the world, and earlier this month, a Japanese maglev passenger train went over 500kph.

Mr de Man also argued that driverless trucks could have large impact on the freight industry, especially give that a driver shortage crisis appears to be a long-term trend.

“I really do think we will get there, and the impact for the 3PL industry would be huge, because it would allow for improvements in time, cost, quality and, very likely, road safety,” he said.

However, he poured scorn on the emergence of delivery drones, which he believes are characterised by a lack of capacity and have potentially a lot of legislative problems.

This was backed up Markus Kuckelhaus, director of trend research at DHL customer solutions and innovation, who explained the difficulties DHL had encountered when launching its recent parcelcopter pilot flight.

He explained that the parcelcopter, which cost around €40,000, has a payload of less than 2kg as the entire system needs to be under 5kg, “because it’s easier to get the permit for it to fly”.

Additionally, current regulations stipulate that drones need to be able to be controlled by a person at any time during its flight, which means the unit has to continually be within eyesight – effectively 300 metres.

“One of the most useful current uses is to survey infrastructure, BP uses them to survey pipelines; and there is also intra-plant transport use such as ferrying components around large mining sites.

“Urban deliveries is the use case with the highest business potential, but it’s also the one that’s furthest from happening because of the regulations and social acceptance. Do we want thousands of drones flying around our cities?

“We don’t see this happening in the next five to 10 years,” he said.

He added that DHL’s pilot flight to the German island of Juist took half a year just to acquire a permit.

“We see it being most applicable in delivery to remote areas in highly developed countries,” he added.

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