Julia Kroeber-RielHead of Group Communications & Governmental Affairs firstname.lastname@example.org +49 152 58870900
Whether a parcel arrives at its intended destination in a short space of time is already decided at the start of its journey. The corresponding procedures have been perfected in a way that means parcels can be packaged with virtually no delay and, for the most part, addressed automatically. After this, the cargo can start its journey to its intended recipient – via a self-service collection point, post office, ParcelShop, or dispatched from the retailer’s logistics center.
The parcels are stacked on top of the loading areas of 7.5-ton trucks and compact vans in a Tetris-like fashion before being transported from where they were posted to their first distribution station – the regional delivery center. These are often set up inside basic hangars in industrial parks located close to a highway entrance ramp. The parcel shuttle service runs at least once a day. The proximity and size of the delivery center depends on the parcel service in question and how the areas it delivers to are spread out. In the evening, larger trucks are used to transport the parcels on to a nationwide cargo center.
This is where it gets high-tech: the parcels are sorted by postcode. Large parcel centers such as the Obertshausen center near Frankfurt am Main have made this process largely automated. Every hour, as many as 50,000 parcels zoom down the conveyor belts, which measure six kilometers in total. A special mechanism places the parcels in a way that ensures they are a certain distance apart when they go round, thereby guaranteeing that the laser scanners get each and every one of them. The deliveries then end up at one of the 331 loading gates depending on the scanned postcode. If the address on the parcel is illegible for the scanners, it is forwarded to a follow-up point, where the company’s employees attempt to complete the label. This additional step takes time – and may result in the parcel being dispatched a day later.
Once it is dispatched from the sorting center, the parcel’s journey, the bulk of which is done by road, continues overnight until it reaches its destination area. Due to its size, market leader DHL holds a special position in this respect and transports all of its parcels directly between its parcel centers nationwide, of which there are currently 34. Other logistics companies such as Hermes, DPD, UPS, and GLS sometimes use stopovers, where parcels sent from different regions but with the same destination are grouped together. This method is more efficient for smaller transportation networks. Parcels from Oldenburg and Berlin, for example, that are sent to a Munich address are grouped together somewhere in the middle of Germany – often in Hessen or Thüringen. From there the trucks, whose load is now considerably improved, set off for the south of Germany.
The parcels arrive at their destination areas early in the morning – between 4 and 6 a.m. After the cargo receipt is acknowledged, the postcodes are checked one more time. Parcels intended for somewhere else will now stay put for at least a day. These misdirected deliveries can only continue their journey in the right direction in the evening – although this does not happen very often. The rest of the parcels end up at their respective delivery centers. The parcel center in Obertshausen, for example, has eleven such centers, three of which are located in Frankfurt. The parcels arrive in two stages: between 6 and 7 a.m. and between 8 and 9 a.m. After this, it’s time for the most important step, also known as the “last mile.” Customized solutions are what will matter here in the future.
When it comes to last-mile delivery, couriers are indispensable. Built-up cities with a growing number of vehicles, however, make their job increasingly more demanding. More and more people are turning to online shopping, while large retailers like Amazon or Zalando endeavor to shorten their transit paths. The magic formula is called “same-day delivery” and requires new solutions for last-mile transportation. Customers get angry when they come back to the “Sorry we missed you” card in their mailbox, with failed delivery attempts also generating hefty extra costs for the parcel services. Help is at hand in the form of self-service collection points or lockable parcel containers, which can also be installed in multiple family dwellings or apartments. These allow parcels to be delivered at any time, although they do also come at an additional price for the recipient. Another possibility, which is being tested jointly by Volkswagen and DHL, is parcels being delivered to the trunk of a car.
Everyone knows the brown, yellow, or white UPS, DHL, and Hermes vans. Equipped with clean engines, these remain indispensable when it comes to deliveries. Last year, Volkswagen Caminhões e Ônibus (Brazil), for example, presented a pioneering last-mile delivery concept in the shape of its e-Delivery truck. It will, quite literally, be a truck of the world – aimed at customers in over 30 countries across the globe. A range of approximately 200 kilometers makes it ideal for urban transportation. A compact, quiet, low-emission solution.
Heavy rush-hour traffic and a lack of possibilities for parking or stopping make delivering parcels in an urban environment even more of a challenge. As a result, parcel services are increasingly focusing on other means of transportation in addition to the classic vans. This includes, for example, testing electric cargo bikes for intercity areas: low-emission and quiet, these two-wheelers are the convertible among delivery vehicles. Couriers on two wheels can go across pedestrian areas and navigate narrow urban roads to quickly reach their destination whatever the weather, without getting in the way of other road users. Containers situated at key points in the town center are used as temporary storage facilities where couriers fill the baskets of their cargo bikes with parcels before eventually delivering these to the recipient. The downside? The cargo bike baskets can fit about as much as a wheelbarrow.
Some startups are already testing the idea of using robots to deliver parcels. Hamburg, along with Düsseldorf, Bern, and London, is one of the four cities trialing these self-driving creatures, which are the size of a camping cooling box. The GPS-guided robots operate under human supervision. State-of-the-art sensors help them to identify obstacles or red traffic lights. Right now, this experiment is a bit of amusement for test customers – the robotic couriers will not replace vans in urban delivery operations any time soon.
The use of cargo-carrying drones is worthwhile in cases involving expensive cargo, an urgent need for delivery, and a remote and isolated destination. In the future, this may become reality for islands like Juist or Amrum, but also in urban hospitals, say if blood supply runs low during surgery. Protestant clinics in Frankfurt am Main alone report between 50 and 60 emergencies a year. They are testing drones, which can transport important reserves six times quicker than traditional couriers by road.