“Coronavirus didn’t defeat us”. Challenges of the logistics industry during the global pandemic

Interview with Arkadiusz Glinka, director of Product Management, C.H. Robinson Europe

How has the pandemic changed logistics for manufacturers?

Nearly a year ago, the world did not expect that the virus outbreak in the Chinese province would drastically affect all aspects of social and business lives. While some industries had to freeze their activities, several of them, including logistics, had to quickly adapt to the new reality. People responsible for supply chain management had to face many challenges like constant support while operating companies, ensuring the delivery of necessary food and medications transports or meeting the significant increases in demand for online purchases were just the beginning. Simultaneous restrictions on the flow of cargo, such as increased controls, no entry into some areas or closed country borders were another impediment. At those uncertain times, maintaining a strong business relationship and using modern technologies that could meet such challenges was imperative. C.H. Robinson’s technology, built by and for supply chain professionals, has been developed to improve organisations’ ability to resist any type of disruptions, including the one of Covid-19, and prepare them for when they need to meet the unexpected. With a strong team of experienced experts, a flexible approach towards the needs of our customers and carriers, and a number of streamlined solutions in the field of production, planning and risk management allowed us to additionally show the value of our cooperation and the effectiveness of support that we can provide.

What sorts of safety measures have been put in place in terms of your operations?

In order to remain fully operational in this unusual situation, we quickly switched into a remote work system as many other companies. I can proudly admit that our teams transitioned to it very smoothly – over 80% of C.H. Robinson employees from around the world worked remotely on the first day after the announcement of lockdown. We continued to serve all global and domestic transport, complying with government regulations and general ordinances of health organizations, and we provided our customers and carriers with uninterrupted service.

Due to more people shopping and working from home, have you noticed more demand for shipping services due to the pandemic?

The uncertainty of what will come with the spread of the virus and general distress around it have surely had a great impact on people’s demand for many goods.  The needs of our customers were dynamically evolving. It automatically translated into increased demand for trucks and the need for flexible transport management. In the first weeks of our new pandemic reality, some sectors slowed down (such as less important consumer goods) or stopped (e.g. automotive), while others experienced periods of strong growth. An example would be producers and sellers of food, beverages and hygiene products, who in response to the situation on individual markets have extremely increased their production capacity.

Can you comment about operational integration systems with manufacturing companies and the supply chain? How has CH Robinson changed its delivery processes and integrations in response to the pandemic, if at all?

Frankly speaking, C.H. Robinson was very well prepared for this unusual situation. For years we’ve been investing in modern technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT, and digital supply networks to improve organisations’ ability to resist such challenges. That’s why we developed Navisphere®, a C.H. Robinson’s integrated business intelligence global platform, and lately announced a  new partnership with Microsoft, which will integrate Navisphere with Microsoft Azure, and Azure IoT to further enable real-time visibility for our customers and accelerate innovation in the supply chain. Those kinds of solutions help break down silos that are often met in traditional supply chains, connecting all functions of an organisation to their full supply chain network, enabling, as a result, end-to-end visibility, agility and flexible optimization. Next to this, they offer real-time order and shipment information, proactive alerts about external factors that can disrupt supply chains, and predictive and prescriptive analytics. As a result,  organisations can make smarter decisions, quickly respond to the ever-changing global supply chain landscape, and manage potential disruptions.

How do you see AGV’s (Automated Guided Vehicles) and robotics affecting logistics in factories today?  Does this affect your processes at all?

There is nothing groundbreaking about stating the fact that AGV’s can significantly facilitate key operations including just-in-sequence production and in our case just-in-time logistics, as well as optimize flows within the factory and improve warehouse management. In my opinion automation, that already enjoys great popularity, will be one of the areas that will actively be considered in the future. Technology that is based on automation and artificial intelligence has the potential to replace people in some job positions, thus reduce the risk of epidemics spreading e.g. in warehouses. In addition, automation has the potential to reduce the role of cheap foreign labor as it is highly likely that after the coronavirus pandemic, supply chains will cluster closer to the source. However, it needs to be remembered that solutions of this kind will require developing new structures, processes and skills to fully and smoothly manage the integration between „human” workers and their robot colleagues.

In the new post pandemic economy, do you see any permanent changes to logistics processes with large manufacturers?

As a matter of fact, yes! Given all of the issues we talked about before, our experts have analyzed those challenges of recent months and pointed out the most important insights that the supply chain industry should learn from this situation. Among the most important lessons there is even greater significance for heightened visibility to enable a much deeper understanding of supply networks, inventories, and sales including the geographical location of suppliers and the different goods that pass through them. Rising investments of companies in well-thought-out risk management plans and development of the supply chain 4.0, which by combining analytics and artificial intelligence offers a variety of information at one’s fingertips or supply more than one supplier are other important milestones. The role of „last mile” logistics will also gain in importance. Companies expect the best possible customer service from their supply chains, which is why „last mile” logistics will become an even more competitive environment. After the epidemic, when we all return to „normality”, this will require the introduction of innovative technological solutions that will allow retailers to quickly scale delivery systems.

Are you optimistic about the economy going forward after the pandemic?

The truth is, none of us can make clear predictions about the future in any area. Only in the last couple of months, we’ve experienced an unprecedented situation. For some sectors it would take not months but years to rebuild their pre-covid greatness. Moreover, according to many experts, we are yet to face another challenging time and as we see, some countries are reintroducing lockdowns. However, we firmly believe that we have to stay optimistic – logistics was one of a few industries that remained fully operational during March and April, time of many restrictions. As it comes to the business and profit side, losses in our industry were not that drastic as in some other. Even though the time of uncertainty is still  ahead of us, the trade cycle will eventually bring us all back from recession to growth phase. Hopefully, the sooner the better.