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Integrated Planning of the Value Chain with a Simulation-Based Digital Twin

| May 9, 2023 | By

Integrated Planning of the Value Chain

Moving bulk material by rail is a very interesting challenge. The goals are simple: move as much material as fast and efficiently as possible from the sources to the clients and avoid being the bottleneck at all times. 

Simple enough, right? Well, not quite. Those systems are usually managed by teams in Control Centers that easily compare to those required to run space missions! Let’s look at what those teams are working with.

NASA Mission Control Room

Figure 1 - NASA Mission Control Center, comparable to Rail Logistics Control Centers (but with a virtually infinite budget and zero risk tolerance).

The Challenge Part 1

Complex Systems in fast-changing environments

The challenge starts with all the constraints that a Rail Logistics Team must consider and adapt to:

  • The trains are often aggregated from several blocks coming from different sources that must be synchronized on the network.
  • Unidirectional rail segments are very rare, so it is necessary to carefully plan the position of sidings to allow train meets, and timing those meets is always a challenge.
  • The sources might not always be able to load and deliver the cars on time.
  • Some rail segments can be run by third parties that are often only giving wide timeframes for pick-up/drop-off at different locations.
  • The equipment must be maintained regularly (load-outs, locomotives, dumpers, ship loaders, sheds, rails, sidings, etc.) or else the risk of unplanned maintenance events increases every day.
  • Human Resources Management (availability, absenteeism, conductors trading shifts, training, etc.)
  • Cars fleet management (always enough cars just-in-time at each site)
  • Weather events can cause delays (cannot load if raining).
  • Meteorological Events that seem to happen more and more often (forest fires, floods, tornadoes, etc.)

As with all supply chains, the whole thing must be run as tight as possible, and any unplanned activity in the system can cause a series of events that can take hours, days, or even weeks to stabilize again. In a way, the Control Center is almost always in crisis management mode, trying to keep the system running as smoothly as possible… it’s just that some days the crisis is a bit less severe.

In this continuous, fast-changing, and hard-to-control environment, the role of the Logistics Team is thus to:

  • Aggregate all the available strategic and operational system information and continuously establish the best possible forward-looking long-term plan.
  • Day-by-day and minute-by-minute, control the plan execution and react as fast as possible to any change or deviation.
  • This is a continuous loop of crunching data and formulating a new plan; then executing and controlling the plan.

There is a common saying in the military that can be adapted to explain the problem at hand here:

“[…] no plan ever survives first contact with reality the enemy.”[1]

So, we’re continuously planning, but the plan goes out the window as fast as we can generate it and we must adapt, or as Eisenhower put it: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”[2].

The key here is that everything relies on the quality of the data/information available and the ability of the team to process it, fast, efficiently, and correctly.

The Challenge Part 2

The Uniqueness of Each Rail Network Operations and a Team Under Pressure

This is a quickly moving network of pieces with fast-moving problems, and these problems require equally speedy, and correct solutions to keep the system optimized and running smoothly.

Surely, there must be off-the-shelf solutions to help do this, right?

Well yes, but no… let us explain:

  • No two Control Centers are the same as they are effectively the Brains of unique systems that operate in unique environments with unique components… and the complexity of it all scales exponentially with the number of components managed (sources, clients, product types, terminals, rail providers, etc.).
  • As compared to Space Mission Operation Centers where the applicable constraints never change (laws of physics), Rail Logistic Operations constraints change every single day.
  • Since Rail Logistics is an older industry, they are often run with a plethora of internal tools, spreadsheets, databases, emails, and phone calls, with varying levels of experience in streamlining.

Because each of those systems is unique, there is no one size fits all tool that could possibly automate all this work for all those teams…

So, let’s recap it all:

  • A team continuously in crisis mode;
  • Running a complex, unique system that is very sensitive to disruptions with hundreds of components;
  • Must manage tons of data from informal sources, share it with peers, and try to find the next best thing to do to execute the plan, as optimally and quickly as possible.

Sound familiar?

No wonder they need such high-tech control rooms then! That’s not the type of team you can disrupt by trying to implement a monolithic software solution that does it all on the dream that it will make their jobs easier in 5 years. They need help, now.

This is where the SimWell team comes into play with their incremental approach.

The Solution

An Integrated Planning Control Room for the Value Chain

This allows for innovation without disruption; incrementally building Integration, prediction, and optimization solutions to support the team.

First things first, by working with future users, we identified the fundamental priority to ensure more efficient operations for the earliest deliverable product concept.

  • Simulate short-term dispatching scenarios and get preliminary results for the railway and its associated operations, including production, shipping, maintenance, and resource management.

To achieve this with minimal operational disruptions, SimWell proposed a solution that focused on building the most critical and urgent sections of the customer's operations first, while also implementing simplified versions of their other services to ensure end-to-end visibility of their process.

Here's a summary of the approach & solution provided:

  • Prioritize building critical and urgent sections for end-to-end visibility.
  • Streamline real-time system information and simplify operations.
  • Apply iterative development and modular thinking (SimWell Agile Methodology).
  • Continuously progress towards a fully integrated Digital Twin of the complete system.

The following Figure presents a high-level architecture of the web-based solution developed to support the Control Room in understanding the state of the system, running simulation experiments, and visualizing forecasts: Workflow

Figure 2 - SimWell Digital Twin Architecture (Web Platform)

The Project Outcomes

Leveraging this approach, SimWell provided a Digital Twin solution that delivered immediate value and set the foundation for future scaling. The solution was built by prioritizing the most critical and urgent operations first and gradually adding sophistication as needed. This approach resulted in increased system-level throughput and a faster return on investment compared to out-of-the-box solutions, ensuring that the solution was able to financially support its own future vision… without breaking anything.

Typical rail logistics projects resulted in the ability to simulate scenarios within seconds, generating new insights and results using existing data. The success led to happy customers, future phases, and projects where we are implementing a larger scale solution with a wider scope of operations, and progressively integrating optimization and artificial intelligence technologies to continue to make the Control Center operator’s jobs less stressful… one step at a time.


Approach Applicable to All Sectors

While this article focused on the specific sector of Rail Transportation, the same ideas and approach can be applied everywhere. Note the similarities within other industries like manufacturing, scheduling, mining, healthcare, supply chain, etc: an infinite amount of data in formal and informal sources, fast-paced, constant emergency mode, fear of risky monolithic technological implementation, challenges to demonstrate ROI to unlock the required fundings, etc.

The similarities might be obvious, but how can a solution designed for a large team in a Control Room fit within your operations? At SimWell, we like to imagine that every Operation or Plant Manager (or any decision maker really) would benefit from imagining their toolset as a Control Room, even if it’s not a physical room with dozens of monitors.

By adopting this frame of thinking, the path forward becomes clearer… to increase insights for the decision-makers so that they can make the best possible decisions at all times:

  • Visibility on the Now, by harnessing and presenting all important live information in integrated Dashboards
  • Predictive and prescriptive analytics, by developing robust forecasting tools and a risk-free experimentation environment.

Book a demo to see how SimWell can help you increase insights to make more calculated decisions and improve your systems and operations.



 1 Quote attributed to military theorist and Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz according to 1969, Airborne Carpet: Operation Market Garden by Anthony Farrar-Hockley, Chapter: Crises and tensions, Quote Page 17, Ballantine Books, New York.
 2 1958, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957, Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, Remarks at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference