Forward-looking organizations are increasingly embracing new technologies to navigate the ever-challenging business environment and stay competitive.
In a recent Gartner survey of supply chain technology users’ wants and needs, 34% of respondents said they expect to adopt new technologies over the next five years. As manufacturing executives think about honing their digital strategies in the age of Industry 4.0, quantum computing promises to become a valuable part of the chief information officer’s toolkit.
Quantum computing is emerging as an important means of helping companies solve their most complex business challenges. In simplest terms, quantum computing harnesses the power of quantum physics to solve hard (often know as NP-hard) problems. While a classical computer uses bits, which represent a 0 or a 1, a quantum computer uses qubits, which can represent a 0 or 1, or both at the same time.
Say you’re looking for the best path to cross a valley, and want to use a computer to help you navigate. A classical computer would scan the valley and try every single route, one at a time, to see which is best. That’s a time-consuming process, and it will be a long while before you figure out the most efficient way to get across. A quantum computer, by contrast, can try every single route at the same time, and quickly report back the most optimal path. It can also take in additional information quickly (like changing road conditions) to provide improved options in real time.
Most commercial quantum computation will be hybrid, meaning that problems will be solved using both classical and quantum resources. Much like the value of a graphical processing unit (GPU) in classical computation, quantum computers are accelerators. A quantum hybrid approach offers the best of classical and quantum solvers, automatically determining which parts of problems are more suited to classical or quantum solutions and, in turn, enabling businesses to see early quantum value on their current computational problems, while preparing them to address more complex problems in the future.
There’s a specific type of quantum computer tuned for optimization problems, known as an annealing quantum computer. Annealing is the only quantum computing model that, as part a quantum hybrid approach, can efficiently solve large combinatorial optimization problems at enterprise scale, tackling problems involving large numbers of variables and constraints. These types of problems make up a large part of the manufacturing problem space across every part of the supply chain, such as distribution center bottlenecks, materials procurement, bin packing, aircraft loading, plant maintenance, route optimization, pricing, staffing and scheduling.
Enabling Port Flexibility
The Port of Los Angeles is known as America's busiest port, and at a time when the world is facing a multitude of supply chain challenges, it's essential that the port operate at the highest possible level of efficiency. SavantX, a quantum analytics company, created a quantum application specific to the port’s third largest terminal, Pier 300, deploying the HONE (Hyper Optimization Nodal Efficiency) quantum-powered AI engine to optimize cargo handling and truck scheduling using an annealing quantum computer.
The goal of the work was to expedite delivery out of the terminal while increasing the amount of cargo that can be handled. The terminal handles more than a million containers a year, and up to 5,000 trucks a day. It’s constrained in acreage, so the only way it can get more cargo through its gate is to increase speed throughout all stages of the process.
This optimization had three major components: reduce the back-and-forth movement of the gantry cranes, create more efficiency for truck appointments, and optimize the process of calling trucks into the delivery area. SavantX created a digital twin of the port operations and ran thousands of simulation runs, testing out optimization schemes against a wide range of terminal conditions such as truck appointment methods, queuing variations, traffic patterns, the number of trucks in the terminal, and the number of no-shows.
HONE runs continuously to optimize crane movement, decide which trucks are called into the terminal and when, and set upcoming truck schedules. With HONE, truck drivers use an app that directs them to the right container based on a crane’s current location, reducing crane movement while increasing crane productivity. The result is a reduction of wait time for truckers, and increased movement of containers out of the port. Deliveries per day per crane went from 60 to 97 following HONE implementation, an 62% increase in productivity.
Fueling Traffic Flow Efficiencies
Drivers routinely rely on the comforting voice of a GPS navigation system to guide them to their destination, but many of us also have had the experience of ending up in interminable traffic jams. Volkswagen demonstrated an efficient solution to this challenge using quantum hybrid approaches, steadily guiding drivers along routes that are optimized in real time in response to traffic conditions.
The company selected an intensive test-case for traffic: managing a fleet of buses carrying attendees of the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, Portugal. Volkswagen’s solution was to develop an Android-based app that regularly communicates with a cloud-based quantum web service (QWS) platform. This was in turn directly coupled to a quantum computer, which supplied bus drivers running the app with the best route to their destination given current traffic conditions.
Over the four days of the conference, the nine buses in Volkswagen’s Quantum Shuttle fleet completed 162 QWS-guided trips. Using a quantum hybrid approach in planning these routes, solving a total of 1,275 optimization tasks, researchers noted that none of the three bus lines consistently followed the same path — highlighting the importance of QWS guidance in adapting to current road conditions. With this real-time guidance, the buses were able to achieve consistent travel times regardless of the time of day. Quantum traffic optimization tools such as this can be integral to easing the movement of goods.
Given the abundance of complex optimization problems in the manufacturing, logistics and supply chain space, the category is ripe for realizing the benefits of quantum computing. Orchestrating the more efficient movement of goods is a problem set that’s well-suited for quantum computing. The technology is beginning to demonstrate that it can determine how to transport more products with fewer trucks, a crucial capability given the ongoing truck driver shortage. It also can be used to unlock bottlenecks in regional distribution centers, identify optimal shipping and transit routes when inclement weather hits, and find optimal aircraft cargo loading as fuel prices skyrocket.
Forward-thinking manufacturing, logistics and mobility businesses can secure a first-mover advantage today by beginning to explore specific problems that can benefit from quantum computing. In combination with classical computing, there are limitless possibilities as to what businesses can achieve with quantum technology in all areas of supply chain management. From scheduling to routing to bin packing, there are many potential areas that quantum computing could revolutionize. It’s up to businesses to take advantage of this promising technology before others catch up.
Murray Thom is vice president of product management at D-Wave System, Inc.
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