Big data helps to optimise planning

Report INVEST in discussion with Professor Dr. Dirk Sackmann, holder of the logistics professorship at Merseburg University of Applied Sciences and, since 2015, speaker at the KAT Competence Network for Applied and Transfer-Orientated Research into Pathfinder and Logistics Visions.

Prof. Sackmann, in the regional research database, your name is under a project called Pathfinder. What is behind this?

We have addressed a problem that is of significant importance today. Namely: How can I carry out transportation while considering all available modes of transportation? We are talking about multimodal and intermodal transport chains. We understand these to mean transport chains with varying modes of transportation. For example, goods transported by lorry and then transhipped by train or possibly by ship. The starting point is asking how I get from one source within the logistics network to my destination.

However, our tool is also suitable for optimising transport networks with regard to  environmental impact. This takes place by considering external costs in our tool. Any mode of transportation - be it rail, water, road or air - has an effect on the environment. However, in most tools and in practice, these influences are not yet portrayed. We calculate how the use of a mode of transportation affects the environment.

So you weigh up all aspects of the mode of transportation against each other?

Exactly. Of course, people always speak of the carbon footprint these days. But transport via road has other effects. For instance, the fragmentation of areas by motorways. This is a so-called external effect and something of this kind is not yet considered sufficiently in transport planning. In our tool, we have taken account for external effects as a result of external costs and can therefore measure which transport, via which route, influences the environment and what external costs its use creates.

Can you give an idea of which mode of transportation is the most favourable?

With regards to external costs, we have a ranking. Transport by lorry causes higher external costs than by rail and ultimately than waterway traffic.

But the modules are re-compiled as new each time, if necessary.

Exactly. It can be quite reasonable to suggest that in the local area, transport by lorry with lower volumes and a lower distance would be sensible. This is then consolidated, when modern logistics are developed, by transporting larger amounts and travelling longer distances by rail or ship in the so-called main runs.

You work with many small and medium-sized companies. How does the introduction of logistics work in Industry 4.0?

Firstly, we have to answer two questions. What do we mean by Industry 4.0, and where do companies stand on the road to Industry 4.0? In an international context, Industry 4.0 is considered to mean the self-management of objects. This means objects communicate with each other online. If I pursue the noble objective, I must first of all find out where the companies stand and where we need to meet them. That is naturally a long process. Every company has its own characteristics and if we work together with companies, we firstly look at the actual state and identify with them the problems we can help them tackle. With Industry 4.0, we think that universities also have a responsibility to sensitise and inform. Only afterwards do we look at how the companies can be developed. In a landscape shaped by small and medium-sized companies, we are right at the very start. Rather, it is the digitalisation of business processes that is a prerequisite for enabling aspects such as self-management of objects and communication of objects online.

Is that an issue at all for small and medium-sized companies in Saxony-Anhalt?

There are aspects that play a role there. When we think about logistics, then route planning often plays a role. By that I mean how goods are distributed to clients, in which transport, with how many modes of transportation, and how they are used at full capacity. This plays a role in distribution, but also in waste management. Therefore, here we implement route planning processes; but the companies are also collecting more and more data. Let's take disposal. The waste containers are tagged and each one has an ID. They are weighed to see how much waste is inside and this data variety results in further optimisation potential. This is all one aspect of Industry 4.0 that is discussed under the buzzword "big data". More and more data can be extracted from the process that can be used for optimisation processes.

Another thing we are doing is receiving information during the telematics process about traffic jams, road closures and accidents. We can therefore react and temporarily switch to other routes. This is referred to as dynamic route planning. In the near future, we will have to go about implementing such projects with our partners. These are always small steps - the transfer of data during the process and the questions about how we can respond dynamically to disruptions, and how we can use the data transferred during the process for optimisation.

If we look at the future - 20 or 50 years, what sort of a vision do you have for logistics?

In the field of transport logistics, it is of course a matter of whether there will be automatic trucks - self-propelled long-haul lorries without drivers. That is an important point. If it works, we can save costs enormously. We would be talking about a savings potential of up to 90 per cent. Automated driving is also good for reducing accidents and saving fuel. This is the sort of vision for the future we have in the heavy goods sector - automatic trucks. It is a business model that will certainly be promoted, and goods traffic will also benefit.

What timescale are we talking about here?

It depends on how much political support is involved. But you could say within the next 10 or 20 years. That is an estimate you often find in the studies.

Thank you for your time.

Author: Annette Schneider-Solis