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Industry 4.0: What Ants Can Tell Us About Logistics

September 29, 2014 by Andreas Schmitz 4

How ants navigate the path from a food source to their colony is of interest to logisticians for optimizing supply chains.

Just as the ants have their own communications, researchers say we will need standardized platforms that connect freight forwarders with shipping companies, if we are ever to reach Industry 4.0.

When containers move autonomously through networks like data packages and then arrive at the right time, in the right place, and in the right order, and the algorithms function in global networks across company boundaries, then Michael ten Hompel believes we will have reached the stage of Industry 4.0.

Michael ten Hompel, professor at the TU Dortmund University, Germany, and head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML), is a logistician and researcher into supply chains. Ideally, these operate using the model of the ant colony optimization (ACO) algorithm, where ants pass on information that enables them to organize their paths using a self-governed approach. After all delivery options have been sounded out, the ant colony finally finds the optimal path on its own. And all the ants use it.

The ACO algorithm vision: machines are not yet talking to each other
“Supply chains work best using the model of the ACO algorithm,” says Michael ten Hompel.

“Supply chains work best using the model of the ACO algorithm,” says Michael ten Hompel.

It’s already working quite well on a local basis with containers, but “the global systems are not yet as advanced,” says Michael ten Hompel.

A recent survey by management consultancy KPMG revealed that this will soon change. Almost three quarters of the managers in the 460 companies surveyed in the Global Manufacturing Outlook 2014 assume that – in three to five years’ time – supply chains will work autonomously across company and national boundaries. Complex algorithms for the self-organization of technology as well as advanced systems for analyzing large amounts of data are necessary for this to happen.

“In the future, machines will be able to make better decisions on the basis of knowledge,” SAP’s Nils Herzberg confirms – but “it will be some time before the systems will be able to optimize themselves locally and communicate with each other.” It’s still the case that the geolocators attached to the containers are used to help people optimize the “ant paths,” explains Herzberg, who examines how such solutions should be positioned and developed further, so that customers can benefit from Industry 4.0.

“In the future, machines will be able to make better decisions on the basis of knowledge,” says SAP Senior Vice President Nils Herzberg, but “it will be some time before the systems will be able to optimize themselves locally and communicate with each other.” Photo: SAP

“In the future, machines will be able to make better decisions on the basis of knowledge,” says SAP Senior Vice President Nils Herzberg, but “it will be some time before the systems will be able to optimize themselves locally and communicate with each other.” Photo: SAP

To advance the supply chain, Herzberg can first of all envisage better links between those who simply cannot afford a connected Industry 4.0 solution.

Even today, for instance, trucking companies with just a few trucks still limit themselves to just their navigation system. However, it may well be possible to create platforms that hook up customers with trucking companies and that can be used, for example, to view the necessary local information and estimated time of arrival.

What’s more, experts believe more individual information could be delivered: Trucks that carry special shipments for the food, chemicals, or high-tech industries could be able to ascertain the temperature in box vehicles; fuel tankers could gauge the pressure in their tanks; or measuring the vibrations during the transport of servers – and even of highly expensive blades – could become the norm.

Logistics: global and local platforms in the making

“These higher level offerings will come,” says Herzberg with certainty. And they will be so simple that hardly any knowledge of technology will be necessary to use them – because not only the technology is in the cloud. The entire service is built on it. Herzberg explains, “The freight forwarder signs up, pays a sum for each truck, and uses the data and analysis options available.” He can also imagine such platforms not only in logistics, but also in, for example, the automotive industry or the health sector.

For a global logistics platform, ocean carriers, airlines, and other associations must agree on standards. For trucking companies and railroads, regional offerings are the better choice. The pilot project between the Hamburg Port Authority and SAP at the port of Hamburg are testimony to this. Here, trucking companies, container terminal operators, parking lot operators, and other port operating firms will soon be able to synchronize and coordinate their transports with one another on one platform.

The more companies that join the platform and the more data there is, the more important the fast and efficient analysis – which is already possible today – will become.

In surveys, the same reservations about Industry 4.0 can be heard again and again. In a questionnaire about trends that was conducted by eco, the Association of the German Internet Industry, 94% of participants stated that they felt unable to cope with the technology and criticized the lack of general standards.

The market researchers from IDC also discovered that a third of the participants in their survey did not consider the technology sufficiently mature and regarded the complexity as difficult to manage. Industry-specific platforms may still be some way off, but there is hope yet – because the data is in the cloud. There’s no need for a technical support service, the trucks navigate around congestion and construction work to a large extent, and there are no compatibility issues thanks to agreement on standards.

Even if complete self-organization won’t be achieved right now, we have taken a step toward a functioning ant society in logistics. The vision is a little closer.

Images: SAP

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