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Logistics Professor Michael ten Hompel on the transport systems of the future, the need for cross-company data exchange, and communicating with smart shelves

MM | Based on forecasts by the OECD, the global freight volume will more than quadruple to 307.615 trillion ton-kilometers by 2050. How can the logistics industry cope with this mammoth task?
MICHAEL TEN HOMPEL | Software is the raw material of logistics. We will only be able to solve the tasks entrusted to us if we process that material intelligently and implement it in smart algorithms. It's about planning the best possible supply chains, to use resources even more efficiently and sustainably.

MM | This sounds as if logistics was becoming a key industry of our digital age.
TEN HOMPEL | Logistics has enabled globalization, shipping and today's internet trade. And yes, logistics is also the moving force behind the fourth industrial revolution. What I'm saying is that logistics has long been a key sector, a classic hidden champion.

MM | What will the logistics world of the future look like?
TEN HOMPEL | Logistics centers will increasingly convert into high-tech locations. Swarms of cellular transport vehicles will take over order picking and storage tasks. Containers are getting smart and starting to network with shelves. Talking to shelves will soon be completely normal.

MM | When will the first fully automatic delivery vehicles be out on our streets?
TEN HOMPEL | The first attempts in this direction are already underway, and for certain niches I can imagine it happening very soon. Also technologically, there seems to be no reasonable obstacle. In practice, however, I believe e-bikes and other hybrids are more likely.

MM | Does that mean we are holding the technologies to start this fourth industrial revolution already in our hands?
TEN HOMPEL | Essentially yes. This time, it is not about developing fundamental basic technology, but about the consistent implementation of what is already available. In every-day operations, however, we are pretty far away from it. Therefore, my most important advice does not cost the companies a dime: Rethink! The change taking place right now is so revolutionary, it even questions the supposedly established business models. In the end, it will be the same as in all industrial revolutions: the fastest ones will win.

MM | What is it companies need to do specifically?
TEN HOMPEL | An essential requirement of industry 4.0 is to plan in real time at ever-shorter intervals. However, this also requires a lot of data. The more, the better, for example on the traffic situation, the weather, but also information from the systems of the partners involved. The premise for this is that the participants exchange data along the logistical chain. Because data only acquires value when shared. Companies walling themselves and their data in will hardly benefit from digitalization. Storing is silver, sharing is gold"

Professor Michael ten Hompel, 58, holds the Chair of Materials Handling and Warehousing at Dortmund Technical University and is Managing Director of the Fraunhofer Institute of Material Flow and Logistics.