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MH&L's Innovation Awards 2015: Top 10 Supply Chain Innovations of the Year

Dec. 14, 2015
MH&L salutes innovations in land, sea and air transportation, and applauds best practices that span the management of single facilities to the operation of extended global supply chains.

Welcome to the 2015 MH&L Innovation Awards, an annual tradition celebrating advances in technology, processes, workforce management, and varied and sundry other supply chain best practices. In the following pages, we'll revisit some of the most popular stories that appeared on our website, our various social media channels and newsletters. We've retained the original headlines in case you'd like to go online to read our original reports for more details.

Enjoy this extra-long feast of award-winning excellence, and if the evidence here is an accurate predictor of the future, 2016 should prove to be another amazing year of supply chain innovations.


Solar Vessel Carries Cargo across Erie Canal

In October, the solar electric delivery vessel Solar Sal departed Lockport, N.Y., carrying four tons of cargo, primarily recycled cardboard. The final destination, 300 miles away, was Cascades Tissue Group's facility in Mechanicville, N.Y. The vessel is believed to be the first-ever cargo transported across the Erie Canal without the use of any fossil fuels. It was powered exclusively by the sun, its solar arrays and the storage capacity of its onboard batteries.

The boat is said to have performed well, despite significant overcast and rain for several days. Solar Sal reached her top speed of 7 knots when called for, and in direct sunlight could sustain a 5-knot cruising speed (same as commercial tugs travel in the canals) using only 4kW of power.

The vessel runs at its peak performance using only half power, and its onboard batteries can hold enough charge for an additional 50-mile run after dark.

Since the solar arrays can deliver 5kW on a sunny day, a reasonable speed can be achieved while more energy flows into the boat's batteries than it is using—in essence the boat is refueling while underway.

Solar Sal can accommodate up to a 12-ton payload.


A Robot Dispatcher to Help Truck Drivers Avoid Disruption

The MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is developing an automated travel advisor that could ultimately function as a type of robot dispatcher that helps truck drivers avoid disruptions and choose the optimum routes to their destinations.

The lab already has several applications underway, including hybrid car navigation and controlling autonomous underwater vehicles.

The algorithm will show the acceleration profile of the vehicle so the driver can anticipate features such as hills, and adjust the route to meet their deadlines.

The system has speech-recognition technology that enables it to establish a dialogue with the driver. It might ask what the driver's goals are for a trip, and automatically plot the most time- and fuel-efficient route based on the latest traffic information and digital maps.

Unexpected changes can also be taken into account. For example, if the driver wants to travel to a restaurant and the place is closed, the advisor can be programmed to suggest other options.


Google Glass Helps Warehouse Workers See Better

Various divisions of global logistics company DHL have been testing a method of replacing handheld scanners and paper job orders with wearable smart-glass devices outfitted with warehouse management software. The technology enables hand-free order picking, helping workers to find the fastest route to pick products. It can also read bar codes.

In January the company completed a pilot project testing smart glasses and augmented reality in a warehouse in the Netherlands. In cooperation with office products manufacturer Ricoh and wearable computing solutions expert Ubimax, the technology was used to implement vision picking in warehousing operations.

Staff was guided through the warehouse by graphics displayed on the smart glass to speed up the picking process and reduce errors.

For three weeks, warehouse staff were equipped with head-mounted displays such as Google Glass and VuzixM100. The displays showed the respective task information during the picking process, including aisle, product location and quantity. Overall, 10 order pickers used the equipment and picked more than 20,000 items, fulfilling 9,000 orders within the given time frame. As a result, staff was able to operate much faster and error-free. Currently DHL and Ricoh are jointly evaluating the roll-out of the solution.

The pilot proved that augmented reality offers added value to logistics and resulted in a 25% efficiency increase during the picking process.


World's Largest Self-Ballasting Cargo Airship under Development

In September, the Aeroscraft Corp. (Aeros) announced it has developed a vertical takeoff and landing-capable heavy-lift cargo ship, known as the ML866 (66-ton). The aircraft, which somewhat resembles a blimp, is a variable-buoyancy cargo airship featuring an onboard buoyancy management system, rigid structure, vertical takeoff and landing performance, and operational abilities at low speed, in hover, and from unprepared surfaces.

The goal of the project is to dramatically decrease the time and cost for delivering container cargo around the world, especially to austere areas with no pre-positioned infrastructure. Aeros hopes to achieve FAA operational certification for the first deployable Aeroscraft within five years.

Aeros is currently developing main component and test articles for the patented buoyancy management system known as COSH, or control-of-static-heaviness, as well as structural components for the operational aircraft with 66-ton payload. COSH is Aeros' proprietary internal buoyancy management technology, which was first demonstrated in 2013 as part of the Defense Department's Project Pelican.

Aeros hopes to complete the configuration ‘design freeze' for the 66-ton payload capable Aeroscraft by the end of 2015 as part of fleet development efforts now underway to satisfy global demand for the vehicle's new logistics capabilities.


Mercedes Reorganizes Its Supply Chain Network to Reduce Auto Costs

Luxury automaker Mercedes-Benz is in the process of reorganizing its supply chain network to more efficiently service its expanding global footprint. The company has set a goal of reducing logistics costs per vehicle by 20% (Mercedes currently produces more than 1.75 million cars annually).

Part of Mercedes' strategy involves the opening of a new consolidation center in Germany, which will provide highly specialized logistics services. Once that center becomes fully operational in 2016, it will ship several hundred cargo containers per week via inland waterways or by rail. Those containers will then be loaded onto freighters and transported to China, South Africa and the United States.

Previously, logistics service providers were solely responsible for managing shipments of materials from German and European suppliers to Mercedes' plants overseas. The new arrangement will not only be shorter in distance but will also greatly reduce the company's carbon emissions.

Mercedes also plans to focus on optimizing material flows into its production facilities—from material deliveries to component installation in vehicles. One plant, for instance is piloting a project in which materials used in the final assembly area are exclusively brought to the line in prepackaged baskets by driverless transportation systems, eliminating the need for workers to get the materials themselves.

The company has also begun construction of a new network hub at an Adriatic seaport to ship vehicles to Asia.


Ford Motor Builds Own Talent Pipeline in Detroit

In May, Ford Motor Co. announced that it plans to establish four career academies in Detroit to train future engineering, manufacturing and IT professionals. The academies will serve up to 1,400 students.

The Detroit career academies will join the national Powered by Ford STEM Academy network the automaker is building to help prepare students for jobs in the 21st century.

Ford currently has four academies in three locations—Volusia County, Fla., Louisville, Ky., and Utica, Mich. When the Detroit academies are added, the network will be serving 2,800 students.

By 2020, Ford expects to have 20 academies serving 7,000 students in cities where the company has assembly plants, as well as elsewhere in the U.S.

The academies are a combined effort involving Ford's STEM educational programs and its national Next Generation Learning (Ford NGL) initiative. Ford NGL, which was launched in 2006, provides financial support, coaching, mentoring and technical support to 20 communities in the U.S.

Academy students continue to attend their regular high schools, but instead of participating in general classes, they learn standards-based core academics through projects grounded in engineering, IT and manufacturing.


Self-Driving Truck Hits the Highway

In October Daimler tested its self-driving truck under real traffic conditions in Germany. The truck is equipped with smart systems, including front-mounted radar, cameras and active speed regulators and works without a human driver, although someone has to be in the driver's seat to take the wheel if necessary.

The standard Mercedes-Benz Actros, fitted with the intelligent Highway Pilot system, traveled about nine miles on the A8 motorway, with a driver in the cabin but his hands off the wheel.

The Highway Pilot is comparable to a plane's autopilot in that it can steer the truck by itself, but a human driver is still needed to monitor traffic conditions and be ready to take over at a moment's notice.

Daimler admits that a completely autonomous truck, without a human co-pilot, is still a long way off.


Airbus Using 3-D Printed Flight Parts to Increase Supply Chain Flexibility

Aerospace manufacturer Airbus has used 3-D printing technology to produce more than 1,000 flight parts for use in the first-of-type A350 XWB aircraft. The 3-D printed parts were used in place of traditionally manufactured parts to increase supply chain flexibility, enabling Airbus to meet its delivery commitment on-time.

The parts are 3-D printed using thermoplastic resin certified to an Airbus material specification. The resin provides high strength-to-weight ratio and is FST (flame, smoke and toxicity) compliant for aircraft interior applications. This enables Airbus to manufacture strong, lighter weight parts while substantially reducing production time and manufacturing costs.

The use of additive manufacturing has also enhanced the buy-to-fly ratio, since far less material is used than with conventional manufacturing methods.


Nissan Plans Supplier Park in Tennessee

In March automaker Nissan North America announced it plans to invest $160 million to build a new supplier park at its Smyrna, Tenn., vehicle assembly plant. The project, expected to be completed in 2017, aims to create and support more than 1,000 supplier jobs.

The park will occupy 1.5 million square feet, with the goal of having all needed parts located within 1.5 miles of the final assembly point. Ten auto suppliers had already committed to the project when the project was first announced.

Establishing the supplier center will allow Nissan to lower both its inbound and outbound logistics costs, which in turn will lead to better productivity, efficiency and quality, the company expects.

In 2014, the Smyrna plant assembled more than 648,000 vehicles, and by the end of 2015, 85% of all Nissan vehicles sold in the U.S. will be built in North America. The Smyrna plant assembles the Nissan Altima, Maxima, all-electric LEAF, Rogue crossover, Pathfinder SUV and Infiniti QX60 luxury crossover.


Cardinal Health Taps the IoT to Improve Medical Supply Chain

In September Cardinal Health announced its plan to open a Healthcare Supply Chain Innovation Lab, which employs an Internet of Things (IoT) approach. Much of the healthcare industry's IoT focus has centered on patient monitoring applications—developing solutions that will accelerate the transfer and analysis of Big Data, and supporting real-time decision-making on issues such as consumption and impending product expiration.

The new, 20,000 sq. ft. lab will serve as a hub for Cardinal Health to explore new approaches, such as smart sensors and near-field communication, to bring creative, acute care-centered technologies to the healthcare field. The R&D lab will also take aim at reducing or eliminating the estimated $5 billion in wastes throughout the medical device and implantables supply chain.

Cardinal Health plans to expand its automated inventory management offerings and solutions for challenging processes related to procedural areas, such as the operating room. The company's inventory management solutions are currently used to track products in more than 2,700 hospital locations and 68 distribution locations worldwide.