Global supply chains have struggled with labor shortages, material deficiencies, lack of transparency, safety hazards and many other challenges in the last few years. Modern problems require modern solutions.
Self-healing commercial trucks and these three additional innovations could revolutionize operations and get the economy back on track.
The Science Behind Self-Healing Trucks
Self-healing materials traditionally consisted of small single-use capsules with healing agents inside, but new technology has emerged that can repair itself multiple times. It works through 3D vascular networks like a plant’s root system, sending the healing agent throughout the network to continuously repair damage.
Despite this recent advancement, it has proven difficult to create metals with self-healing properties due to their unique chemical composition. That’s why engineers are focusing all their efforts on polymer research. Self-healing polymers make it possible to create vehicles that can repair scratches, dents and other minor forms of damage.
Recent research on polymers has yielded promising results. They can heal rapidly and regain their previous properties, allowing vehicles to look and perform the same after being damaged. A unique intrinsic polymer can also repair itself automatically without any external influence.
Along with polymers, elastomer composites have also made self-healing cars possible. Elastomers consist of self-healing liquid metals that have proven effective in repairing small electronics. Engineers are working on applying elastomers to the two primary vehicle metals, steel and aluminum.
Self-Healing Truck Applications
These developments are encouraging, but supply chains have yet to see any self-healing truck applications on a wide scale. However, other industries can provide a glimpse of what these vehicles could do. For example, researchers are looking into self-healing polymer coatings for space and deep sea exploration, which are more dangerous environments.
If self-healing coatings can work in such extreme settings, it stands to reason they would be successful in commercial applications. Some have specific roles, such as corrosion protection or scratch resistance. Auto manufacturers could also incorporate these coatings into the existing polyamide compounds in engine covers, air bag containers and many other car parts.
Two other potential applications could be revolutionary: paint and rubber. Fixing paint scratches and blemishes can be expensive and time-consuming, costing up to $3,500 for professional repairs. Adding a self-healing polymer to the paint can help it withstand those scratches and blemishes, minimizing downtime and keeping fleet trucks on the road.
In 2017, researchers at Harvard University developed a self-healing rubber compound by combining covalent and reversible bonds. The result was a strong, flexible and transparent molecular rope that could repair itself and remain in good condition by evenly distributing damage.
Rubber tires typically crack or puncture because too much stress has built up at one small point. Spreading out the pressure makes the rubber much less likely to break under extreme stress. Adding self-healing rubber to commercial vehicles would reduce flats, accidents and delays.
Self-healing roads could be another application with a huge impact on supply chains and society. There is already an official patent for self-healing concrete that uses bacteria-induced calcite precipitation to fill cracks and prevent potholes.
Other Innovative Supply Chain Technologies
Self-healing vehicles have great potential and get most of the spotlight because of their interesting applications, but other technologies could be equally important in the coming years. Here are three more innovations making waves.
Electronic Control Units
ECUs are a collection of small computers and sensors that can transfer information anywhere worldwide. Along with self-healing technology, they can help commercial vehicles become more independent and efficient. Fleet trucks have seen a major increase in ECUs in the last two decades, bringing people many small steps closer to autonomous vehicles.
As fleets implement more ECUs, each essential vehicle function will be under constant automated supervision. Remote diagnostics will get smarter, and so will the trucks. Once supply chain leaders master ECU technology, the next step toward autonomous cars will be to install multiple parts that can perform the same task when the original is damaged.
As of 2023, the highest level of vehicle automation that manufacturers have reached is Level 4 – high driving automation. Driverless taxis, automated public transportation and other commercial vehicles with limited applications fall under this category. They don’t need a human driver and can stop themselves if a system failure occurs. However, this technology is still in its infancy and is not ready for widespread adoption across the supply chain.
Self-healing technology and ECUs can work hand in hand to keep commercial vehicles on the road despite minor setbacks. Although completely autonomous cars might still be far away, these two advancements are big steps in the right direction.
With material shortages and delivery delays plaguing the global supply chain, close monitoring has never been more important. Geospatial monitoring with GIS and GPS systems enables fleet managers to constantly supervise each vehicle, identify disruptions and mitigate them before they cause delays.
GPS also simplifies supply chains by helping managers identify the optimal drop-off and pickup locations, leading to quicker deliveries and lower shipping costs. Businesses can easily map their entire supply chains and find the best suppliers with the fastest routes. They can even monitor changing traffic patterns and other potential causes for delays.
Geospatial technology also plays a role in inventory management. Warehouse managers can see which units are ready for delivery and which vehicles would make the fastest delivery time. Remote geospatial sensors can also use their insights to predict buying surges and other supply chain trends, helping managers stay ahead of the curve.
Blockchain technology consists of decentralized, immutable digital ledgers that ensure complete transparency during online transactions. Nobody can change blockchain records once they are finalized. This technology started as a platform for cryptocurrency exchanges but can play the same role and improve visibility along supply chains.
Blockchain records are ideal for establishing trust, traceability and continuity in supply chain management. During the height of the pandemic, hospitals in Britain used blockchain to secure vaccine shipments when people needed them most. This technology can bring the same value to other industries and products as it expands.
Strengthening Supply Chains One Innovation at a Time
The aftershock of COVID-19 is still apparent throughout the supply chain. Industry leaders face an uphill battle but can slowly strengthen it one innovation at a time. Self-healing trucks, ECUs, geospatial technology and blockchain are four such innovations. Look for them to play more important roles in the coming years.