Digital twins LEAD in last-mile logistics

By Dr. Beatriz Royo, ZLC Associate Professor, Dr. Sara Sanchez, ZLC Researcher and Carolina Cipres, ZLC Director of Research.

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As part of the three-year, EC-funded LEAD project which is now reporting, six European cities have been experimenting with the use of digital twins to support demonstration and decision-making in on-demand urban logistics operation.

LEAD, or “Low-Emission Adaptive last mile logistics supporting on-Demand economy’ through digital twins”, studied a range of innovative business models which feature agile urban freight storage and last-mile distribution schemes, utilising low emission (electric or hybrid) and automated delivery vehicles governed by ‘smart’ logistics systems.

The drivers here are to further the goals of zero emission logistics and the sharing economy by exploiting technological advances and working towards the emerging Physical Internet paradigm. In each city a digital twin has been created that supports models that can be adaptable to different circumstances and would provide incentives for public-private programmes, and that enable value cases, in the form of cost, environmental and operational efficiencies, to be demonstrated. In the longer term, the LEAD vision is to use these digital twins in the design of an Open-PI inspired framework for Smart City Logistics, leading to the development of generic, city-scale digital twins that can be widely deployed.

The six cities running these ‘Living Labs’ were Madrid, The Hague, Budapest, Lyon, Oslo and Porto, each project taking a rather different approach, although with many commonalities. Overall, all the projects were relatively successful, despite a number of difficulties and obstacles, and it has been possible to identify both common themes and special circumstances that can inform future work.

In Madrid, the study was to reshape the existing CityLogin business. This currently uses diesel vans to deliver to consumers from a warehouse beyond the city limits, and the idea was to replace this by a two-tier system using an Urban Consolidation Centre (UCC) in the Plaza Mayor underground car park (which is inside Madrid’s Low Emission Zone), using hybrid vans to transport from warehouse to UCC, and electric three-wheelers for final delivery. Data from ‘business as usual’ and the new UCC demonstration was fed into the digital twin for comparison and evaluation.

Partnership between the operator and the public authorities (who amongst other things own the car park) was crucial. Daily UCC operations have been live since October 2021, and success has been such that the partners are now looking at ways of scaling up beyond the project’s initial lifespan, which might involve different kinds of vehicles, different facilities and bringing in other industries such as the hotel/catering/restaurant sector

In The Hague, focus was on improving last mile operations as part of the city’s urban mobility objectives for the Binckhorst area, which needs to become more ‘liveable’ despite the densification that is occurring.

Three cases were studied: crowdshipping logistics, a public parcel locker network, and an integrated crowdshipping network (combining the first two), looking for improved connectivity between different services and across platforms. Locker installation took longer than expected, and the participation in crowdshipping was lower than anticipated – possible issues include scale, complexity, and level of remuneration. Nonetheless, the digital twin’s assessment of KPIs for an integrated network suggested a 9% saving in carbon emissions and energy, and a potential reduction in delivery costs for crowdshipped packages of 35%.

Lyon also explored the potential for UCC operation, combined with more efficient vehicles, in the particular context of devising municipal regulations that will guarantee a peaceful non-motorised environment across more public areas. The scheme included locker systems and final delivery by e-cargo bikes. One of the use cases includes UPS, while the other experiment is a used cartridges collector that seeks to be more effective by holding client trash in the UCC minimizing the number of visits to the warehouse.

Indeed, he digital twin  allowed to estimate that a UCC/cargo bike operation could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% while keeping operating costs below the average. The pilot projects have also created keen interest in the UCC concept among several potential operators.

Budapest created its digital twin to explore the merits of creating a virtual hub near the Western railway station, under four different models. This hub would be fed from a regional warehouse and perform like a fixed UCC or alike a mobile depot, in one model open 24-7, in another with hours restricted to the morning and would serve B2B deliveries to small and local grocery and other stores. Transport would be either by LNG truck, and electric vans, or 16t electric trucks, and electric vans. Real life data on times, distances and routes, was gathered and compared with the output from digital twin simulation of the different models, which also evaluated various social, economic and environmental KPIs for each scenario.

These KPIs suggested savings in traffic of 60%, and on urban parking and storage requirements of 76%.

Oslo is one of Europe’s most rapidly growing cities, and one with ambitious targets for CO2 reduction (95% by 2030). The Living Lab here constituted a push towards transitioning urban logistics from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles and crowdshipping. The value case was based on distribution of large office furniture products to the household market.

Scenarios modelled in the digital twin included home delivery by e-van direct from store; using e-vans to transport customers from store to the micro-hub (city centre but close to residential areas); using crowdshippers to deliver from micro-hub to residence; and using crowdshippers also to bring returns back from households.

The first three scenarios were all found to be successful: The KPIs for energy, emissions, and for increased delivery reliability, were all favourable. However, the use of e-vans is handicapped by the distances between stores and households, and micro-hub sites are hard to secure in densely populated areas.

Finally, the Porto ‘Living Lab’ was led by MC Sonae, a food retailer with home delivery operations and ambitions for electrification and a Physical Internet approach.

Three scenarios were explored: two virtually in the digital twin, and one with ‘real life’ input. The first simulation was to optimise the network locations of charging points, and consequently the routes, for a fleet of electric delivery vehicles (EDVs). Secondly, the operations of a specific store, delivering food orders on demand using electric vehicles, was simulated. Finally, there was a live field test called rescheduling, which utilised motorcycles for small deliveries of for resolving problems.

The digital twin was able to demonstrate that all these approaches have positive outcomes and are worth pursuing in the short and long term.

Despite commonalities (three of the six projects involved UCCs, for example) these Living Labs covered a range of approaches and situations for both B2B and B2C urban logistics, while encountering and usually overcoming unique unforeseen challenges. Specific insights include the various ways in which locker systems can be deployed (and the extended timescales that may be involved in approval and installation); issues around small electric delivery vehicles: charging point availability and charging times, trade-offs between small vehicle agility and economies of scale; and the potential for crowdshipping to improve last mile efficiency, against hurdles such as attractive but affordable remuneration rates, and bringers’ reluctance to go too far of their way. The importance of early and deep public private partnering  was found to be cornerstone to successfully deploying sustainable business models.

But perhaps the most important outcome is evidence that the use of digital twins to plan and evaluate urban logistics alternatives is powerful and effective. The knowledge, understanding, and indeed specific modelling, of digital twins under LEAD will now be taken forward into new projects such as DISCO – with which ZLC is also involved.

For more information contact Dr. Beatriz Royo, ZLC Associate Professor at [email protected]