“Even experienced experts will benefit”

Working for the DB Schenker Lab at Technische Universität Darmstadt, Tessa Sarnow designed simulation software that supports the development process of logistics services. Here, she explains how this works – and fills us in on other projects at the lab

At Technische Universität Darmstadt, Tessa Sarnow works for the DB Schenker Lab (German) at the Chair of Management and Logistics, Prof. Dr. Ralf Elbert. She holds a Master’s degree in industrial engineering with a focus on logistics. Photo: private   

Ms. Sarnow, developing logistics services is the domain of experts who often bring many years’ experience to the task. Do they really need software support?

Service engineering often involves making a large number of decisions, each of which can take many different forms. What kind of layout should be chosen for a warehouse? What kind of technology will be needed? If this process is undertaken as part of drawing up an offer for a tender – and this is precisely the kind of scenario for which our software is designed – then there is usually time pressure as well. Frequently the information provided by the customer, serving as the basis for the offer, is also incomplete or inconsistent. In this situation, even the most experienced expert can benefit from the assistance a simulation can provide.


Your solution is geared towards picking services in the warehouse. Why?

This is partly because requests are constantly made for offers in this regard. Above all though, it is because a high percentage of picking tasks is still carried out manually by employees, and employees are one of the most cost-intensive resources in a warehouse. If the number of employees is miscalculated for a tender, this can turn out to be a really costly exercise later. For this reason, the simulation is primarily designed to support the user in arriving at realistic estimates in this respect. Not only does the logistics expert stand to benefit from this; it also helps the customer. Because the more thoroughly researched an offer, the higher the quality of the service that can be achieved later.


What exactly does the software do?

It lets the user enter all the data that is needed to prepare an offer, e.g. What is the volume of goods the offer should be based on? Will there be major seasonal fluctuations? Are there plans to conduct promotional campaigns? What order picking methods are to be used? What system of shift work is planned? On the basis of these input values, the program simulates a wide range of different scenarios and calculates the performance values that can be achieved in the warehouse – and, above all, the personnel requirements – for each of the scenarios.

 Still largely a manual task: order picking often calls for significant numbers of personnel. The job of determining the exact number required is to be facilitated by the use of simulation software recently developed at the DB Schenker Lab at the Technical University of Darmstadt. Photo: DB Schenker

What part do human solution designers play in this process?

Their role continues to be vital! With all their experience, they will continue to be in demand, including and especially for personal interaction with the customer. But now they will have support: for example, the software will alert the solution designers if important input values are still missing. It is then up to them to obtain more information from the customer. The end result is an offer – and if the customer accepts the offer, a service – that is built on a transparent and precisely verifiable basis. Ideally the software could be developed further in such a way that it can also cover other areas, such as the warehouse layout or the allocation of storage space.


How much work went into the development of the software – and is it already being used?

We had a team of two people prepare a preliminary study over a period of three months. The actual software development – again carried out by a team of two people, with occasional support from two students – took a year. Starting in 2019, the software will be trialed at DB Schenker’s Warehouse of Excellence at Rodgau near Frankfurt. At this location electronic components are picked in a diverse mix of activities, something that we find useful for testing. In the next phase we plan to deploy the software in the actual operational environment.


Taking a broader view, what else is happening at the DB Schenker Lab?

Here at the lab, which is subordinated to the Chair of Management and Logistics, Prof. Dr. Ralf Elbert, we are currently running a project to determine how 3D printing is changing value chains in the logistics sector. The resulting analysis will be used to determine the framework for configuring new value chains in which 3D printing will be a fixed component. There is also an exciting project run together with DB Cargo which investigates ways in which rail freight transportation can be sustainably integrated into urban logistics concepts. The Technical University of Darmstadt currently has ten people from across the entire Corporate Management and Logistics department working at the lab – along with seven colleagues from Deutsche Bahn with various project backgrounds.