Exploring the Use of Robotics in the Final 50 Feet of Delivery

New sophisticated solutions are being developed to optimize the last leg of the delivery journey: the final 50 feet.

By Tom Gresham

It was at the Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington that supply chain experts coined the increasingly used term “the last 50 feet of delivery,” according to Anne Goodchild, professor of civil and environmental engineering and founding director of the Supply Chain Transportation & Logistics Center at Washington (where the Urban Freight Lab is housed). Goodchild said that the final 50 feet represents a short but critical segment of the delivery journey—a distinctive piece of the process that presents challenges and opportunities that are unique among the various components of the supply chain.

The last 50 feet also is a portion of delivery that until recently had been largely overlooked, Goodchild said. “We haven’t optimized for this part of the supply chain yet,” she said. However, “now that’s where the attention has really turned.”

With attention comes an assortment of innovative ideas for improving efficiency and effectiveness, including a range of technology-based solutions. Among those is the use of robotics to help complete the delivery process by transporting a product from its delivery vehicle to its final destination. Automation has been applied in areas such as package sorting, route planning and schedule optimization in the delivery process, but until now it has not yet made a major impact in the actual delivery of packages. The type of robotics used in the potential delivery solutions under development vary, encompassing such styles as drones, wheeled robots and legged robots. In some of the scenarios under consideration, robotics are paired with automated, self-driving vehicles.

Monica Eaton-Cardone, COO of Chargebacks911, which manages more than 2 billion transactions annually for online merchants, said robotics and other ambitious attempts to find efficiencies in the final 50 feet of delivery can be traced to the intense, e-commerce-fueled demands on supply chain companies to satisfy the expectations of “a more entitled consumer.” The push to ensure goods are delivered with more frequency and more speed is putting strain on every leg of deliveries.

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