BMI is not everybody’s favorite topic of conversation, especially if they are weight conscious. Yet, we learned in the presentation titled “Transformation in Logistics - Success Factor for International Markets” on 04MAY21 at the Transport Logistic Online 2021, that BMI does not just stand for Body Mass Index: its other acronym meaning is “Brain Machine Interfaces”. Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Michael ten Hompel from the Fraunhofer-Institut für Materialfluss und Logistik IML, took us into today’s future with some fascinating examples of what is already possible and what is being researched in the Silicon Economy Project.
The Silicon Economy Project is at the forefront of defining future business processes, and it is no surprise that logistics is the first industry where the project’s visions will be trialed and tested, Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Michael ten Hompel, explained, since logistics is ultimately what drives the world economy. Sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure with 25 million euros, and supported by the German logistics industry, the Frauenhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics’ project is all about creating a digital infrastructure or digital ecosystem based on the automated negotiation, scheduling, and control of the flow of goods. Through the use of the Internet of Things and Blockchain in interaction with logistics brokers, intelligent digital infrastructures will allow for comprehensive but also safe transparency along the entire supply chain from the supplier of raw materials to the end customer, creating not only greater efficiencies, but also value for all involved parties. The project began in MAY20, and will last 3 years. Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Michael ten Hompel underlined more than once in his presentation, that its findings will be available in an Open Source Foundation, so that all companies will be able to actively shape the new Silicon Economy in Germany and in Europe.
Is Silicon Economy a typo?
Hearing Silicon Economy, one immediately associates Silicon with Valley. It is not a typo. While Silicon Valley is focused on creating products for consumers, Silicon Economy is the development on B2B level. Going forward in the logistics industry, the physical logistics itself is no longer the main financial asset – or as Axel Plass from Zippel Group put it – “Pure transport performance is a given - those who can't manage that have no business in the market!”. The main income driver will be data and how that data is shared and used. “We are moving away from tangible assets to intangible assets,” Prof. ten Hompel explained, and outlined the importance of Germany and Europe being instrumental in developing logistical processes with the aid of Artificial Intelligence, competing as they do with the USA and China. He also pointed out, that “The world is no longer divided into East and West, but into digital and non-digital.”
All-inclusive Artificial Intelligence
The logistics industry lends itself well to working with Artificial Intelligence, given that it is a gold-mine of data and is highly standardized compared to other industries. That data can be put to all kinds of good use both for live processes as well as future predictions and decision-making. Outlining five areas of application, Prof. ten Hompel underlined that much of what he was presenting was already possible now or would be in the imminent future. Such as autonomous driving, for instance: LoadRunner® - a project which sees 3D printed vehicles able to travel across the warehouse floor at 10 meters/second either alone or in tandem with 2 or more other vehicles, and avoid barriers and other moving objects, is already reality within a building. We are just months away from autonomous vehicles also taking to the road.
The second area: image analysis and object recognition is already in place in various processes. The third area is information extraction; the ability to read, Information extraction, the ability to read, recognize and replay information in the form of texts, social media, streams, or chatbots is also well under way.
The fourth area; planning, predictions, decision support and inventory optimization, he illustrated with a simple tracker project already being trialed, whereby a waste container is fitted with an ultra-low power sensor that reports via a cloud system how full the container currently is, and predicts when it will be completely full. On the basis of its prediction, it orders a pickup and arranges payment via blockchain online, too. In other words, a fully autonomous decision chain that ensures the efficient management of waste bins.
“It’s a little spooky!”
These are all fascinating achievements, however, perhaps the most impressive and at the same time unsettling – as Prof. ten Hompel himself exclaimed “It’s a little spooky!” – is the use of immersive technologies: where man and machine work together as one – in part through simulated or virtual reality, speech analysis and gesture control – but also through thought control. He showed an image of a young man wearing a thin band around the base of his head which read his brainwaves. Purely by thought, and within the space of just 15 minutes, the machine learned to read the waves and a trolley was sent to where the young man was standing. “We are really at the leading edge of research and development, here,” he underlined.
Too big to go it alone
Man and machine – not only a symbiosis for opportunities and potentials, but also – and this was emphasized in particular by Ole Vollersten of Deutsche Post DHL Group – the key to success: “We must not lose sight of the human element, because the interface between man and machine is the core to success.” All panellists agreed on a number of points: that digitalization is imperative for business success, that the topic has become far too complex for a single company to go it alone, and that we are just at the start of what is possible with the support of Artificial Intelligence. As Axel Plass put it “the question is no longer IF we are going to do something, but HOW”, and pointed out that digitalization is an ongoing process. Companies should never stop questioning their processes and seeking ways to improve. He stated that bottlenecks were not usually the wish to invest, but the delay often in the larger companies, in action and setting up interfaces. Philipp Ortwein from Instafreight, pointed out that new, specialized platform players – like his own – would figure more strongly in the future of logistics going forward. Prof. ten Hompel forecast agile companies interacting in ecosystems instead of hierarchies: “crowds and communities instead of ‘brick and mortar’” are the cornerstones to success in the Silicon Economy and the logistics industry of the future.
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