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How technology is helping logistics firms streamline delivery during COVID-19 times

As India continues to face the wrath of second wave of COVID-19, many logistics firms have been trying to deal with the situation by enhancing their capacities and bringing in innovations— unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as drones, technology to enhance their back-end network, upgrading warehouses—to streamline the logistics sector.

Blue Dart, one of the major logistics service providers in the country, recently formed 'Blue Dart Med-Express Consortium' to streamline delivery of vaccines and emergency medical supplies to the remote parts of the country with drones. The consortium is part of the ‘Medicine from the Sky’ project, in collaboration with the Government of Telangana, World Economic Forum, NITI Aayog and Healthnet Global. The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) had granted the project necessary exemptions and rights to fly drone flights on an experimental basis in Telangana. The aim of the project is to assess an alternate logistics route for providing safe, accurate and reliable pickup and delivery of health care items (medicines, COVID-19 vaccines, units of blood, diagnostic specimens and other lifesaving equipment) from distribution centres to specific locations and back.

It is expected that Blue Dart Med-Express drone flights will deploy a delivery model to optimise the current healthcare logistics within Telangana and will enable deliveries from district medical stores and blood banks to primary health centers (PHCs), community health centres (CHCs), blood storage units and further from PHCs or CHCs to central diagnostic laboratories.

“The pandemic has taught each one of us the importance of logistics and the need for a technology-led supply chain infrastructure. While we reach out to over 35,000 locations across the country, the current situation calls for a much deeper penetration of vaccines,” said Balfour Manuel, managing director, Blue Dart.

Currently, Blue Dart is working with the medical equipment and pharmaceuticals sector to maintain the supply chain and deliver critical shipment and essential supplies, including COVID-19 vaccine samples, temperature-controlled movement of COVID-19 testing kits, ventilators, PPE, testing kits, reagents, enzymes, respirators, surgical masks, goggles and gloves among other critical material. The company has six Boeing 757 freighters, and is ramping up operations swiftly to handle large scale shipments.

Experts such as Wing Commander S. Vijay, chief operating officer, Skye Air Mobility, feels that drone based delivery can help India deal with the current crisis efficiently and smartly. Vijay said the vaccination drive is going to be a gigantic task even though India has a well-structured vaccination delivery system owing to its universal immunisation programmes. While the country has one of the world’s largest railways and road networks, a new, efficient mode of transporting vaccines is required to overcome the logistical challenges, considering the fact that India is a vast country with 67 per cent of population living in rural areas.

“Using drones could make delivery of critical medicines, vaccines especially to remote areas, more accessible and faster. It will help in better resource management of the limited supplies and facilitate just in time delivery to the current supply chain system. In fact, many countries in Africa are using drones to deliver vaccines. There are instances of drone usage in emergency situations in India as well. With the use of drones, health workers can easily place orders by text message or call and promptly receive their deliveries in 30 minutes, on an average. Medical drones could fly into remote areas with supplies that are tailored for the situation. Deliveries can be made from the sky, with the drone descending to a safe height above the drop zone and releasing a box of medicine by parachute or by landing at a designated spot near to health centres it serves,” said Vijay.

Firms such as Bengaluru-based Spoton Logistics, a technology and engineering-driven logistics company, have been delivering FDA-approved Oxygen concentrators since April 2021. Presently serving more than 22,000 pin codes in the country across 350 plus locations with over 1800 logistics professionals that include delivery personnel, hub managers, handlers, loaders and unloaders, IT teams, and others are trying to do their bit to streamline logistics in the midst of the current crisis.

The company is using its technology-backed systems to ensure real time upload of critical pickup and delivery information, transport data, asset recovery, etc. with respect to all critical pharmaceutical products, including medicines, sanitizers, APIs, Oxygen concentrators, PPE kits, masks, and hospital equipment. Despite being time-critical, the delivery of Oxygen concentrators is affected by multiple links in the supply chain. The company is thus focusing on providing real time visibility in the shipment of Oxygen concentrators and is also alerting the consumers well in advance in case there is an unavoidable delay.

“We need to keenly keep an eye on the mobilisation process of such critical equipment which can not only help the affected people but also the government in amplifying the healthcare infrastructure. We need to ensure that there is optimum transparency maintained in the delivery process so that the customers can track their shipments in real-time,” said Uday Sharma, COO, Spoton Logistics.

Similarly, Mumbai-based company WebXpress, a transportation and logistics management software provider, is currently helping different companies in streamlining their logistics requirements in view of the current situation.

“Companies, which didn’t make the switch towards technology during the first wave of the pandemic, are now rushing to get technology incorporated in their operations. The appetite for investment in technology remains good, and we have seen at least 25 per cent jump in queries. The queries have been mainly for transportation management from manufacturing companies. It is mainly due to their old models of supply chains that are breaking up due to uncertain demand and fluctuating order situation. They need to realign transportation matrices to respond to smaller order, infrequent buyers and sudden demand rush or collapse. We have also seen more inquiries and on-boarding from retail and consumer goods. Although our on-boarding did slow in April probably due to the sudden shock of the second wave, now the same is picking up pace,” said Apurva Mankad, Founder and CEO, WebXpress.

A recent white paper 'Revisiting Pandemic Resilience' by the logistics major DHL Express points out that around 10 billion vaccine doses would be required globally by the end of 2021. Apparently more than 95 per cent of global COVID-19 vaccine doses are produced in just eight countries and need to be delivered worldwide. Locally tailored, last-mile, ground distribution models should be put in place with a focus on strategic location of warehouses, the synchronisation of vaccines and ancillaries flow as well as the number and location of vaccination points. Hence it requires that the set-up logistics infrastructure and capacity should be kept on that level as in the coming years further seven-nine billion doses of vaccines would be necessary annually to keep re-infection rates low and slow down the pace of virus mutations.


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