Digital twins to support on-demand delivery

By Dr. Beatriz Royo, ZLC Associate Professor and Dr. Spyridon Lekkakos, ZLC Professor

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‘Digital twins’ are increasingly being used to support and inform the policies, designs and implementation of complex systems, from intricate manufactured products and production processes to sophisticated supply chain networks. The Horizon 2020- LEAD project, with which ZLC is working, and which is now halfway through its three-year programme, is creating and applying digital twins to support experimentation and decision-making in the urban logistics environment.

The LEAD project, or to give the full title “Low Emission Adaptive last mile logistics supporting the on Demand economy’ through digital twins”, aims to improve the operation and efficiency of parcel delivery in urban areas while reducing costs and externalities (emissions in particular, though of course there are many others). By bringing together reliable historical and real-time information generated or held by multiple stakeholders in many roles, from municipal and transport authorities to individual retail and logistics businesses, digital twins can use modelling, predictive analytics and other decision-making methods both to co-design and develop integrated value cases and solutions that meet the aims and needs of consumers and balances the requirements of suppliers, shippers, policymakers, urban planners, logistics operators and citizens in the last mile ecosystem, and then manage the real-time co-ordination of models and data to continuously improve cities’ sustainability performance and develop and extend the solutions.

The project is bringing together innovative business models, agile urban storage and last-mile distribution schemes, low emission and automated vehicle technologies and smart IT enabled logistics solutions.

Long-term, the vision is to create an open, Physical Internet inspired, framework for Smart City Logistics that can be applied at scale. To start this development, six European cities are hosting Living Labs, in which evidence-proven value cases and logistics solutions are being implemented both physically and, in tandem, as digital twins.

The success of these Living Labs is being measured against a comprehensive set of KPIs and targets. These include environmental goals – energy consumption, greenhouse gas emission, air and noise quality; social aims including numbers and quality of jobs created, improvements in neighbourhood quality of life, and the promotion of more sustainable and co-operative behaviours; and economic and performance targets including costs, financial rates of return, delivery times and reliability, business benefits to traders, and resource-based measures such as congestion and road occupation, and requirements for urban storage and parking space.

The six Living Labs are currently at rather different stages in their physical implementation and with the creation of their digital twins – the two strands do not necessarily proceed in lockstep, and some schemes involve more infrastructure and other works than others. But all are making tangible progress, with first versions of their digital twins tested, data ingestion from the Living Labs in progress, and KPIs beginning to be measured.

To look at one Living Lab in more detail, in Madrid an Urban Consolidation Centre (UCC) has been implemented in an existing car park under the Plaza Mayor, in operation since October 2021. Since then, an average of two electric vans supply the UCC from the warehouse in the metropolitan area every day. Then, seven three-wheeler e-vehicles deliver 280 packages to the final consumers within the Low Emissions Zone surrounding the car park. Route optimisation models, using operators’ anonymized and GDPR compliant data and public sources of geographic information, are being refined to improve logistics operations; emissions are being assessed using COPERT (the standard EU model for vehicle emissions)[1] and also with a specific model that considers the city’s energy mix, and a start has been made on assessing impacts on exposure to noise. As an example of the way different LEAD strategies may interact, it is expected that with better estimates of time of arrival (ETA) the operator (CityLogin) will be able to deliver within tighter time windows and thus decrease the number of failed deliveries. Such failures as remain will be returned to, and stored at, the Plaza Mayor microhub awaiting the next scheduled delivery, rather than being returned to a city-wide logistics hub, thus greatly reducing the transport kilometres associated with failed deliveries.

The other Living Labs are exploring complementary and alternative strategies. The Hague is developing ‘crowdshipping’ pools for ‘bringers’ (those who are putting goods into the system) and shippers, involving a pick-up and delivery locker network. Lyon, like Madrid, is converting part of an underground car park to form a UCC and ingesting real-time traffic-flows data from a network of cameras.  In the inner-city area of Budapest, four different scenarios are being explored, involving a virtual UCC in conjunction with either fixed or mobile mini-hubs, operating either 24 hours a day, or just in the morning peak, and focusing on B2B traffic. Combinations of electric and CNG power, or alternatively hydrogen fuel cells, will be evaluated.

The Living Lab in Oslo is looking particularly at B2C and the home delivery of larger items, based on a micro-hub close to the main road system and a bus station and creating a crowdshipping network. Scenarios range from delivery from a furniture company to consumer homes using a dedicated e-van fleet, to more sophisticated models in which goods are moved from the furniture company to the micro-hub/consolidation centre while home delivery is performed by dedicated ‘bringers’, perhaps also commuters, and possibly working with the mass transit system to bring customers into the stores, the aim being to meet senders’, bringers’, and receivers’ preferences for alternative delivery services.

Finally, the Living Lab in Porto is a particular retail-focused case. Sonae MC, the leading FMCG retailer in Portugal, is particularly focused on decarbonizing last mile operations and providing consumers with new value propositions. To this end, it aims to create a digital replica of the store network to identify the optimal locations to install electric charging stations that allow an increase in the distance boundaries of the electric vehicles.  In January, Sonae also started implementing a new business model to improve intralogistics operations based on using electricity.

These various projects are at an exciting stage and it will be a while before a full picture of their impacts emerges and the digital twins can be said to have fully captured the reality. Nonetheless, important lessons are already being learned around the involvement, commitment and collaboration between external partners and stakeholders, and growth paths to promote work towards common goals in a complex stakeholder situation are becoming evident.

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[1] COPERT (the standard EU model for vehicle emissions)