Moving cargo is a very physical business. Cargo is physically picked up at a real warehouse, lifted into a heavy truck, and transported to another real-world location. What could be more down to earth and real than moving cargo? It is not surprising that a lot of paper documents are still used to support logistics and transport processes. Or is it? Virtually every part of the logistics and transport business is rapidly pursuing digital transformation and every part of the process is being digitalized, leading to the concept of ‘Digital Twin’. When we take a closer look at paper documents, we’ll see that these were almost certainly prepared using for instance a sophisticated Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) - or some similar system. Therefore, paper documents have digital origins representing the physical, real world. Its Digital Twins, to be precise. Digging a bit deeper, we’d see that the entire process around these documents, like planning, booking, tracking, invoicing etc. are all supported by similar enterprise systems. Therefore, these real processes also work with Digital Twins of the real world: cargo, trucks, containers, vessels, airplanes, etc.

Digital twins are a big thing because unlike their physical counterparts, they are not subject to the limitations of gravity, space and time. Digital twins are a data – and process representation of real-world objects, where the data can be accessed from anywhere in the world at any time and that’s just for starters. Things get more interesting when we equip the cargo itself with sensors that determine its geographical position and the condition of the contents such as temperature and humidity of flowers or pharma products. We can detect the wellbeing of animals being transported or the security of valuable shipments. Now we can check exactly how our cargo is doing without the need for a local pair of eyes. This idea is further extended to the equipment used for transport. Containers are being equipped with sensors. As are the trailers that they are on and the truck or train itself or the airplane or vessel it is transported on. Anything and everything that is used for the movement of cargo is increasingly paired with a Digital Twin, having computational capabilities themselves based on assessing their environment by means of sensors like camera’s and other devices. It not only allows to assess and share data about the real world, but also supports predictions and prescriptions for behavior like Estimated Time of Arrival and dynamic planning. Certificates, logs, identity, etc. digitally represent people as the last member in the family of digital twins. The drivers, pilots, safety inspectors and anyone that is part of the process.

Why do we need Digital Twins?
It may seem obvious that in a world where our private lives are entwined in a digital world of social networks, online shopping, dating, entertainment etc., that a digital twin of the logistics and transport chain is a real thing. True, but the motivation goes much further.

For the past couple of decades, supply and logistics has been working on digitalizing its artifacts and processes and the reason was always the same: accelerate information such that cargo can move seamless and be handled more efficiently. This has been shown to work but it turns out that digital twins can go a lot further than just speed and efficiency.

Think back to your digital private life. At first, we had email and electronic newsletters, now we have multiple avatars, identities, roles, social status, etc. in a variety of social networking platforms.

Supply and logistics is currently (still) at that email and newsletter stage. Going forward, digital twins will transform this into a data space where customers can explore options from 360 degree omniscient viewpoints. They will be able to consider thousands of scenarios for their freight as it moves and respond to issues in real time. They will be able to deploy AI bots to keep an eye on their goods and operations, in future implement at that level, whilst they focus on future strategies.

Imagine that every organization in supply and logistics has this sort of access to data. Not only will every digital twin of every physical artifact, process or thing be at their fingertips, they will be able to create virtual constructs that reflect the way they think about their business. Shippers will see their complete supply chain as a constructed digital twin. Warehouse managers can navigate around their virtual storerooms and see a timeline of its occupancy. Carriers will see their transport equipment on a map or they can see where each vehicle is in the maintenance queue. Customs officers will a flux of goods starting from manufactures long before it reaches their borders.

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This project is co-funded by the European Commission Connecting Europe Facility (CEF)