Intelligence on the Move

Feature Article | September 21, 2011 by Vasco Alexander Schmidt

(image: Fotolia)

Containers that keep a travel log? That's the future of logistics. (Image: Fotolia)

You can find them on streets, at railway stations, and in industrial parks, waiting for the next commercial truck to pick them up: raised freight containers, also known as swap bodies. Some 40 years ago, swap bodies heralded an age of more intelligent logistics because of their compatibility with both trucks and trains.

Now, the containers themselves are getting smart with the help of modern IT research. Over 1,600 swap bodies have a transport “memory” and regularly report their location over the Internet. This enables companies to track the containers’ movement and prevent them – and the valuable goods they hold – from getting lost.

Giving objects a voice

These intelligent containers are part of what researchers call the Internet of Things. For some time, inanimate objects have been communicating alongside people online, bringing about an ever-increasing fusion of the physical and digital worlds – and untold possibilities for new business models. Through multiple projects, SAP Research is investigating how companies can tap into the potential of the Internet of Things.

The concept behind the smart swap bodies, for example, originated in SemProM, an endeavor of SAP Research and its partners to develop concepts for semantic product memory. “The idea is to give objects in the real world a kind of electronic diary,” explains Barbara Schennerlein, project lead at SAP Research Dresden in Germany. “This diary increases transparency by keeping a record of the essential events that occur throughout a product’s life cycle, which can make business processes more flexible and efficient across company boundaries.”

Clever containers

“In the swap bodies, we don’t use semantic product memories in the strictest sense of the term,” explains Frank Josefiak, technical director of Agheera, a spin-off that project partner DSI, a division of Deutsche Post DHL, established to utilize the results from SemProM. “We usually refer to it as a ‘transport memory,’” he says. The individual products being delivered are not connected to the Internet – just their container, through an attached component the length of two standard sheets of paper. This component includes an Internet connection, a GPS location system, a passive cooling element, a solar panel, and a battery to power it.

The container reports its location to Agheera’s data center every 15 minutes during transport and once a day when idle. Deutsche Post DHL can call up the container’s transport memory to meet its obligations in various areas, such as to document when and where the container is ready for unloading. “In the next step, we want to continue to improve transport security,” Josefiak says. Future transport memories could also record temperatures, vibration, and when and where a container’s doors are opened during transport. This level of detail would enable freight forwarders to document proper delivery of sensitive goods, such as measurement devices.

Automated, yet more dynamic

Meanwhile, SAP research scientist Christian Kuhn is sure that digital product memories can offer even more. Kuhn heads another project supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research called ADiWa (Allianz Digitaler Warenfluss, or Alliance Digital Product Flow), which builds on the findings of SemProM, as well as an additional project, Aletheia.

“Today many business processes are defined in rigid ERP system models. When one of them needs to be changed to reflect real-world events, manual intervention is usually required,” Kuhn explains. The goal of ADiWa is to use semantic product memories and similar concepts to facilitate dynamic adjustment of business processes through automation or transparent decision support. The resulting advantages – such as in the production and logistics industries – are considerable, particularly for business-partner networks.

Here, SAP scientists are also working on equipping components with the intelligence needed to actively influence business processes and control their own handling. Doing so will require smart IT architecture. “The data format is a key aspect of a semantic product memory,” notes Schennerlein. Because even the smartest objects are of little use without machines that can understand them during processing, the SemProM project developed a data format that SAP, Siemens, and DFKI are introducing to the online standards consortium W3C.

Integrated through and through

At SAP Research, work continues on its vision of flexible business processes and the Internet of Things. One of SAP’s primary aims in this field involves the Business Web – a platform optimized for mobile devices that could enable companies to coordinate their collaboration the way social networks do. The Business Web would both ensure the ability of swap bodies and other intelligent objects to transmit their data reliably to a central location, and also provide applications to access this information whenever and wherever necessary. Beyond reporting their location, smart swap bodies of the future could also potentially guide the nearest available truck driver to them by smartphone.

The SemProM Project:

Supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Semantic Product Memory project ended in January 2011 after two years of research activity. The project drew on the expertise of seven research partners: SAP, consortium leader German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI), BMW, Siemens, 7×4 Pharma, Globus, and DHL Solutions & Innovations (DSI, the innovation division of Deutsche Post DHL).

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