Bridging manpower shortage in air cargo by embracing technology


It has been quite some time since the global supply chain industry has been grappling with the challenge of inadequate and inappropriate workforce. On average, there is a 15-30% fall in the skilled workforce across various industries, including manufacturing and logistics – from the East to the West. To add on, the industry’s woes were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, technology has come to the rescue at the right time and is playing a crucial role in filling this gap, thereby, driving the sector towards a more productive and efficient future.

For the supply chain industry, this was a more intense setback because, be it on the front or in the back, the ‘people’ element was utmost necessary to continue operations. Even after the industry adopted high-end technology to manage operations, those skilled enough to work with that technology were also a desideratum.

Technology, including AI, Robotics, Automation and ML, is changing the entire functioning of supply chain industry. A part of it is the crucial aspect of air cargo handling – the part that has literally been the lifeline of air carriers and airports when air cargo was the only mode of transportation during peak COVID-19.

For instance, the evoBOT robot at the Munich Airport has been performing test runs at its Cargogate facility, and according to its developers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML), the technology has “immense potential to revolutionise cargo handling automation”. evoBOT uses its two wheels and gripper arms for moving cargo from the apron to the warehouse at the cargo terminal.

Claudia Weidenbusch (MD at Cargogate) hints at increased investment toward air cargo handling automation even though it is a little more complex than that used in, say, automobile production. She expects the technology to make the workplace safer, easier and attractive to the workforce in the near future.

According to the IML, as companies strive to boost productivity, address labour shortages, and enhance efficiency, the evoBot will be “a compelling option” for cargo handling automation.

There are already a few examples of what cargo handling automation would look like – dnata’s Cargo City at Dubai and London – even though they are somewhat semi-automated warehouses. The technology, in terms of throughput efficiency and customer experience, has given considerable value addition to the company. Stewart Angus, dnata’s Regional CEO (Airport Operations – Europe) shares that the service blueprint design and management of data touchpoints are paramount for successful execution using the technology. dnata’s upcoming warehousing facility at Amsterdam Schiphol is also anticipated to feature ‘ take automation to a new level, ‘next level’ automated cargo movement and storage.

Though evoBOT and the likes of it are expected to ease the labour shortage situation by acting as substitutes to a certain level, there will still be come critical areas – like that involving dangerous and radioactive cargo – which will require specific handling procedures to comply with regulatory requirements. It is, therefore, necessary to identify the potential bottlenecks and handle them proactively. It is also possible that some types of cargo will still require only manual handling to provide oversight and safe movement.

There is currently limited specific regulation on the deployment of automated handling systems, and at present, the evoBot functions primarily as a research testbed and lacks certification for direct human-machine interaction or cooperative work. However, by leveraging the learnings from it, a better operating environment with the co-existence of humans and machines can be evolved.

The manpower shortage in the supply chain industry, coupled with the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, demands innovative solutions. Embracing technology is crucial to filling the workforce gap and driving the industry toward a more efficient and productive future.

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