J.B. Hunt testing augmented reality and other ideas to become a ‘technology company’

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 4,701 views 

Augmented reality technology was once only dreamed of in movies, like “Terminator” or “Minority Report,” before expanding into smartphone games, such as Pokémon Go, but it’s now starting to make its way into business.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services is a leader, and with most leaders, they are on the cutting edge of new things, said John Kent, director of the Supply Chain Management Research Center at the University of Arkansas. The Lowell-based carrier’s testing of augmented reality is the latest example.

Augmented reality offers the user a digitally enhanced view of the world, and this differs from virtual reality, which provides for only a computer-created environment. With augmented reality, it blends the real world with the virtual. For example, one can view a digital object and possibly interact with it as if it were virtual reality but still be able to see the real world around it.

While this technology might not be entirely new, it’s new to being adapted to a business environment, Kent said. But whether this technology is going to help J.B. Hunt, “that’s where the jury’s still out.” Some of its benefits might be for training and education, making it more exciting and more engaging, he said. For now, the company is testing it.

Tracy Black, senior vice president of information systems for J.B. Hunt, said it’s not using augmented reality technology in the field. However, the company recently hosted its first “Hackathon,” in which engineering and technology employees split into 30 teams and worked together to develop ideas that use technology to solve problems in which the transportation industry faces.

A winning concept from the event, “Trailer Finder,” uses augmented reality to help drivers find empty trailers.

“Finding a vacant trailer on larger trailer yards sometimes can be time consuming for drivers,” Black said. “Trailer Finder addresses the issue by using augmented reality to leverage the geolocation from our Orbcomm tracking device to give a driver a visual location of the trailer at the site.

“The idea has potential to add another element of functionality to the current J.B. Hunt Drive mobile application by streamlining the process of locating a trailer, boosting driver productivity and saving time. It is still in the process of being evaluated before it can be formally implemented.”

Recently, at an annual technology festival, app developer Chris King of J.B. Hunt explained how augmented reality allows drivers to use smartphones to quickly collect data during pickup, simply by pointing its camera at a trailer.

“J.B. Hunt is kind of turning slowly into a technology company,” King said at NWA TechFest.

King spoke on the Orbcomm trailer tracking sensors that it’s installing in its trailers. Earlier this year, the company announced it would install more than 90,000 of the GPS tracking and loading sensors into nearly all of its 53-foot-long dry-van trailers and intermodal containers. Orbcomm of Rochelle Park, N.J., was selected to complete the installation, which is expected to continue through next year.

“Each unit will be equipped with a solar-rechargeable GPS tracking device and a full-length sensor to determine the presence or absence of cargo inside the trailing unit,” Black said. “These comprehensive telematics solutions will decrease cargo theft, increase operational efficiency, decrease unauthorized use of assets and offer J.B. Hunt control over every facet of its fleet operations.”

The trailer sensors will ensure the right person is in the right truck and gauge whether a shipment will arrive on time, based on layers of data, from fuel, to traffic, King said.

Kent said if the sensor technology that’s being installed in the trailers could function with augmented reality, trailer numbers wouldn’t be necessary. “At some point you might have augmented reality glasses,” and they could help with more real-time visibility in the supply chain.

For example, one might place an order online and instead of tracking the shipment with a cryptic, one-line message provided on the company’s website, the shipper can watch live video of a fulfillment center worker saying they are putting their order into a delivery truck.

“It engages the human being in the supply chain in a much more personal way,” Kent said.

Not only does it make the customer experience more fun, but it also provides key information impacting a company’s bottom line. When asked how much the technology would cost per driver, Kent expected it would be less than $1,000 per device for the hardware. As for the software, he expects that’s something J.B. Hunt will develop in-house.

At the company’s shareholders meeting April 20, John Roberts, president and CEO of J.B. Hunt, discussed the carrier’s e-commerce strategy and announced a $500 million investment into technology over the next five years. The company looks to improve its operating systems, develop cloud-based infrastructure and create innovative and disruptive technologies.

Roberts introduced “Marketplace,” as part of the carrier’s J.B. Hunt 360 transportation management system. Marketplace uses technology to connect shippers to carriers in a single e-commerce platform.

“We have been working hard for three or four years now in different components of our technology strategy,” Roberts said. “We’ve had a number of back office moves. We’ve had a number of operating system changes.”

The $500 million investment will be split three ways: $223 million for creative innovation and disruptive technology; $141 million to improve existing infrastructure; and $136 million to enhance operating systems. As part of the investment plan, the company has doubled the number of employees in its engineering and technology departments to more than 900.

“What we want you to see here is a digital platform for doing business,” Roberts said. “J.B. Hunt 360 is the engine that all of these ideas will run on.”

Marketplace, which started as a pilot program in January, allows carriers to “make instant offers on available loads” while “shippers will be provided true market pricing of shipments. The system will automate carrier selection based on preference, rating and reviews,” according to a news release.

Roberts explained the offers J.B. Hunt is receiving through Marketplace “are offers that are coming into us without people making phone calls in or out. Pricing is being agreed to without people getting involved. The artificial intelligence behind the scenes is helping run those algorithms to make that paring work.”

This past fall, J.B. Hunt hosted three customer forums asking them what they wanted, Roberts said. The customers, representing small, medium and large shippers, wanted more disruptive technology. The company plans to use the information gathered to “finish out our blueprint and roadmap for the future.”

J.B. Hunt 360, which is available via smartphone app, was launched in 2014 and should be built on throughout 2017 to include voice-command/response, real-time load recommendations and automation tools for shippers and carriers along with more precise delivery times.

J.B. Hunt also is investing $2.75 million in the University of Arkansas to create the J.B. Hunt Innovation Center of Excellence. The center will be a collaboration of J.B. Hunt, the College of Engineering and the Sam M. Walton College of Business. It will allow students in those colleges to work with J.B. Hunt employees to address real-world problems through design and technology-driven supply chain solutions.

In an interview with Inbound Logistics, Black explained the carrier is a pioneer in partnering with multiple disciplines and colleges, and this trend is likely to continue as the influence of technology on the supply chain increases.

“We can no longer think in a silo. To remain a leader in this industry, we need to collaborate across business and engineering fields and the multiple disciplines within each, such as finance, supply chain, data analytics, mathematics, industrial engineering and computer science.”