THE BEST transportation is no transportation, economists say. This is, of course, impracticable in a globalising world where trends are moving people in the opposite direction.
Given this context, the challenge for modern transportation companies is clear - to transport goods cheaper, faster and safer. The new science of logistics helps companies meet these challenges, and thus directly affects their performance.
This is why specialized science laboratories are spending time researching and developing algorithms for the creation, planning, management and optimisation of logistics systems.
Picking up goods, entrance goods control, packaging, transportation and storage, reclaiming goods, customs, and distribution to final consumers - logistics deals with all of these tasks. It also touches on areas such as the flow of documents, inter-company movements of goods, predictions and coordination of the aforementioned activities. Logistics is crucial to a company's production and supply processes.
Among the current trends dominating the logistics field are planning, the effort not to produce goods for storage ("just in time", or JIT systems), and shifting the production of components almost entirely to a company's suppliers.
The focus of attention in logistics is on three aspects: online monitoring, management, and optimising of processes.
Reliable data collection is the basis of monitoring. Data in logistics show the state and movement of vehicles and equipment as well as the movement of commodities.
The movement of individual vehicles has become a relatively accessible field of data thanks to the combination of GPS and mobile data transfers, typically GPRS.
RFID chips and barcodes are common ways of collecting data on commodities transported.
Barcodes are cheap and commonly used technology, while RFID offers a high level of automation. However, in the case of RFID, discussions are ongoing about the protection of privacy. If RFID chips are used in retail, it is relatively easy to find out what goods a customer bought. RFID chips are thus preferred in closed systems that demand speed and a minimum of human interaction.
Investments into monitoring would be wasted if we were not able to use the data for the correct management and optimisation of operations. It is at this point that logistics is becoming a real science.
Modern hardware and software tools enable real time data to be combined with algorithms to show the optimal use of all resources. The possibility to assess data from the past is an important element in the management and optimisation process. Data mining and storage of historical data allow various trends to be identified.
It is possible, for example, to calculate the seasonal fluctuation in transportation before Christmas, the different state of roads in winter, the development of traffic during the daytime, the lower availability of labour during the summer, and so on.
Companies should also pay attention to the ability of their logistics systems to be open - to integrate and communicate with the systems of other companies. This is very often underestimated. Modern logistics systems try to meet the requirement for openness, mainly by using modern applications such as SOA - Service Oriented Architecture.
In an open logistics system, for example, a system for ordering goods can submit a demand for the goods to be transported. Otherwise, an employee or an operator would have to manually fill in the transport request according to the specifications in the order.
Open logistics systems are also often seen as a competitive advantage between companies and their suppliers. Production and commercial firms very often expect that their partners who supply them with transport services will function as an integrated element, including integrated communications between their systems.
Pavol Hamala is a key account manager
with Anasoft APR