“Humans and machines will interact as equal partners in the foreseeable future”

How will the airfreight airport of the future look like? Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML) are trying to answer this question. Dr. Ralf-Maximilian Jungkunz, head of aviation logistics at Fraunhofer IML, presented this vision of the future airfreight airport at the Frankfurt Air Cargo Innovation Lab 2017. In an interview at www.innoFRAtor.com, the air cargo expert explains how digital transformation is fundamentally changing airfreight processes, which strategies and business models market participants can apply to prepare themselves for the future, and how people and intelligent machines will work together in the near future.
Dr. Jungkunz, the buzzword “digitization” was on everyone’s lips at the 2017 Frankfurt Air Cargo Innovation Lab. How is digital transformation affecting air cargo processes?
An ongoing digital transformation will be an enabler to completely reorganize processes in order to achieve even more cost-efficient air cargo services. Furthermore, highly networked air cargo processes enable new business models for existing market participants and new market players but will change the requirements for infrastructure and traffic routes significantly. IT concepts offer real-time access to all relevant data – and thus a fast, lean and seamless air cargo flow. In general, data will control the overall cargo process and people will focus to intervene from time to time.
Fraunhofer’s illustration of the airfreight airport of the future.
How will humans and machines work together in the future?
In the foreseeable future, intelligent systems will reduce people’s workload, allowing them to increasingly focus on controlling tasks. The focus is on collaborative human-machine cooperation in which both interact as equal partners. The blue print for applying this to the industrial sector are the dynamic communication channels and social media that people are used to in their private lives. The social networks which interconnect people across national and cultural boundaries are decentralized, intuitive to use, scalable, emotional – and will be an integral part of everyday life. This concept is now being applied to the cooperation between humans and intelligent machines in order to attain the target of a digital and networked industry.

“A new way of human-machine interaction is making it possible to combine the positive unique selling points of people, their flexibility and creativity, with the efficiency of smart machines.”

Dr. Ralf-Maximilian Jungkunz, Head of Aviation Logistics, Fraunhofer IML
What are the mayor challenges airport operators are facing in the course of digitization?
An already visible trend to move traditional value-added processes away from the airport will increasingly lead to the availability of space and growth potential for higher-value infrastructure at airports and the need to market them. The space required for classic value-added processes outside the airport as well as for decentralized freight collection and distribution points for pre- and on-carriage is increasing and may need to be integrated into the business portfolio of airport operators if they want to participate in this market in the future. All those involved in the aviation logistics chain are operating in a demanding competitive environment that requires ongoing viable investments to be prepared for the future. Digitization should enable new services and help offer well-known products at lower prices. Since making decisions to invest in digital transformation is difficult for everyone, digitization is not simply a matter of course.
Driverless shuttles for the autonomous transport of goods, IoT solutions for smart airfreight containers, tablets for controlling logistics processes: The Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics is doing research into promising technologies for the airfreight airport of the future and turning them into innovative applications.
What sorts of technologies is the Fraunhofer IML developing for the airfreight airport of the future?
Our institute is creating numerous innovative applications for the airfreight airport of the future, including an autonomous shuttle for transporting freight between freight forwarders and handling agents on the airport. Other examples include electronic labels and an augmented reality demonstrator that will enable handling agents to assemble airfreight pallets with little experience faster. With DyCoNet, we also developed an Internet-of-Things solution that can be integrated as an retrofit into classic airfreight containers. This system collects and sends pressure, temperature, vibration and position data along the entire transport route, providing real-time information to support the required ground-based decision-making for risk management purposes. Another research project is dedicated to blockchain applications for the secure exchange of sensitive data in highly complex cooperative networks of legally independent actors.
Hands-on testing: the Fraunhofer IML’s AR demonstrator was made available for testing on the Tech Stage at the 2017 Frankfurt Air Cargo Innovation Lab.
What kind of application examples and best practices are already available?
Intelligent small containers that independently reorder goods, drones for in-house inventory and packing pattern generators for calculating the optimal packing density for retail logistics are all already in use. Fraunhofer IML is also developing and designing the digital future of logistics at its numerous enterprise labs in close cooperation with well-known industrial customers such as DB Schenker, DACHSER, WÜRTH, Deutsche Telekom and BMW.
Interview conducted by Benjamin Klare
Photos and illustrations: Tim Wegner, Fraunhofer IML