Imagine if a complex supply chain could organise and manage itself with comparatively little human intervention. Take the aircraft service supply chain, for example. What if the parts in an aircraft were able to detect when they were due for servicing and arrange their own replacement, in an efficient and competitively priced way? Or products in a supermarket were able to negotiate and arrange their own restocking and supply?
It may sound like something from the pages of science fiction novel, but at Cambridge University a team of researchers are developing the information systems to make this vision a reality. In doing so they are revolutionising the supply chain management and operations with significant implications for a wide range of
Like many other organisations, companies in the airline industry are under intense pressure to reduce costs and increase performance. Increased fuel prices and tougher market competition, for example, are just two factors challenging profitability. One area that offers opportunities for performance gains and cost reduction is the hugely complex aircraft service supply chain, which involves the
procurement of many thousands of parts, and the servicing or maintenance of products during their life in service.
Innovations in the field of intelligent objects technology, offer some radical solutions to the supply chain challenges that businesses face. These are objects – an aircraft part for example - that depending on their level of intelligence, are self-aware, have goals and decision making autonomy, and can take action to perform certain tasks.
Together, in collaboration with the Boeing Company, researchers at the University of Cambridge are taking the intelligent object concept into the service domain, creating the self-serving asset. This is an information based representation of a part or assembly that is uniquely identified, can communicate effectively with its environment, retain or store data about itself, deploys a language to display its features and requirements, and can participate in or make decisions relevant to its own destiny.
To be of value, self-serving assets need to be able to act tactically, operationally and strategically. Ideally they should be able to: monitor their environment in order to decide on service actions; decide on service needs and select providers to serve them; interact with providers and other assets to make cooperative service decisions; and monitor whether the anticipated service activity has taken place, re-ordering if necessary.
This vision of self-serving assets requires sophisticated multi-agent, sensor and identification technology. It is here that the University of Cambridge research team has made a critical breakthrough, creating a multi-agent system architecture, through which software agents can act on behalf of their physical counterparts.
The model the team developed incorporates software agents representing individual components and component communities on the demand side, as well as the suppliers. In addition, there are software agents that are tasked with searching for suppliers, and for resolving completion for resources through auctions.
The self-serving asset agent platform has the potential to deliver reduced complexity, reduced time to service, less risk of system failure, and better decision making. These developments translate into some very real benefits for airlines and stakeholder service providers. These include: reduced costs of computation and communication, reduced risk of central unit failure, reduced time spent on service procurement, better decision making, increased data accuracy, and more. The intention is that the asset would, effectively, “manage its own affairs” including maintenance scheduling, part replacement and condition monitoring.
There is still some way to go to fully achieve the team’s vision. Once realised, however, the implications for other industries facing similar supply chain challenges are immense. In the shorter term, it is already clear that the self-serving asset is viable, and likely to revolutionise the aerospace service supply chain.