Unobtrusive little electric delivery vehicles (EVs) are disrupting the logistics business, as part of an exciting new solution to the last-mile problem. They are the final link between customers and the mega-warehouses and heavy trucks that are the backbone of modern logistics.

Moving large loads from regional warehouses to cities is a familiar process. The last-mile problem arises when the orders are then delivered to individual customers. The distances may be short, but the streets are narrow and congested. And pressure in cities is growing, not only to reduce vehicle emissions by electrification but also to reduce the visual and acoustic impact of delivery vehicles.

Cost pressures are important, too. Space in cities is in short supply and therefore expensive to rent or buy. Warehouses take time to build, and may go on to become less useful as demand patterns change. Finally, there are the customers. Once, they might have been willing to pay a premium for 48-hour delivery. Now they expect next- or even same-day delivery at little or no extra cost.

Introducing last-mile distribution centers

The last mile demands low costs and emissions plus high flexibility and efficiency, all at the same time. It really is a challenge. EVs have already been identified as one part of the solution. The other is last-mile distribution centers. These accept a truck-load of individual orders for rapid transshipment onto EVs for delivery to the customer.

Centers like this need not be large or permanent. Neither do they need a lot of equipment. They can be like small pop-up depots, rented for perhaps a few days or even hours with little capital outlay.

How the model works

“The model works like this,” says Niklas Persson, Business Engineer Manager at VPG. “Customer orders are picked and packed in a traditional logistics center. They are grouped first for delivery to individual last-mile centers in tightly defined city zones, and then for delivery in the most efficient order to the customers.”

“At the last-mile center, the grouped deliveries are rolled off the truck and directly onto the EV for transportation within the tightly defined zone. The center does not need much space for storage, because consignments enter and leave in one movement. In fact, all the center needs is a flat floor and a power supply for recharging the EVs. That is what makes the solution so agile – and economical.”

Increasing profitability in real life

This approach originated in the Netherlands, where roads are very narrow and the green movement is very influential. “Dutch grocery company Picnic is already profiting from the system,” Niklas points out. “They make up customer orders in a central warehouse, segregating ambient and cold products, and ship them to the appropriate last-mile center for delivery to individual homes.”

The last-mile center enables Picnic to offer the rapid service that is so important for fresh food. Picnic’s service is now expanding rapidly across Europe, and their appealing little EVs are becoming a familiar and welcome sight among customers.

Never forget safety

“It would be easy to overlook one final challenge,” observes Niklas. “Speed and efficiency are what drive the model. But what about safety? Maintaining safety while accelerating a process has always been a problem.”

Niklas points out that the critical moment is the transfer from the big truck to the smaller EV. “The truck will have an offloader, but the EV is too small to have a loader of its own. The key is to use an intermediate lift table. The operative rolls the load from the truck onto the lift table. Then the lift table positions the load at the right height for it to be rolled onto the EV. This enables operatives to work safely and ergonomically, because they never have to lift or bend.”

The lift table is an excellent match for the last-mile center. It requires no pit or other works, simply a suitable floor. Delivered and installed in just hours, the lift table can be moved just as quickly to another center if its current location goes out of use.

Word is spreading…

“At present, the last-mile center is a mainly European phenomenon. But there are densely populated conurbations across Asia and the USA, too, all facing the same pressures – consumer, cost, and environmental – as their European counterparts. I think the last-mile center is such a good solution that it will soon be found worldwide,” concludes Niklas.

Read more about how Picnic leverages lift tables in their last-mile solution

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