Cisco UK & Ireland Blog

Driving Up Manufacturing Productivity with Smart Cities

April 12, 2017

When we think of Smart Cities, what usually springs to mind are the benefits in terms of improvements in citizens’ quality of life, as well as reductions in the town hall budget. Yet the true value of smart cities goes well beyond connecting residents with services online, making sure the streets are safe and litter-free, and reducing the municipal energy bill. The smart cities of the imminent future can deliver far-reaching value to business as well.

‘Just-in-time’ is an innocuous enough term. It sounds (and is, in theory at least) perfectly straightforward and sensible to deliver inventory right ahead of when it’s needed for the production line (also known as ‘lean’ manufacturing). No need to tie up cash-flow in stock before it’s required, and no need to use up valuable floor space as storage. Yet those three little words, so critical to maintaining productivity, are very much dependent on a factor completely outside of the supply chain manager’s control – traffic.

Traffic really is a big issue in the UK, with British roads the most congested in Europe according to a recent a study of traffic in more than 100 EU cities. The research, carried out by data company Inrix, monitored traffic on every road in 123 cities, and found over 20,300 “traffic hotspots” in UK cities – well over double the number in Germany and twice that of France. Indeed, traffic congestion is predicted to cost the UK more than £300bn over the next decade.

With downtime racking up a bill of thousands of pounds per hour a production line is down (a whopping £17,000 per minute for unplanned downtime in the automotive industry), it’s easy to see how traffic congestion can rack up a hefty bill for manufacturers. So just how can Smart Cities help to unclog our roads and keep key the UK’s supply chain on track?

Step forward Swindon Borough Council, which has a vested interested in improving Manufacturing productivity. The area is home to Honda and BMW factories as well as those of many other automotive suppliers, with other industrial sectors well-represented here too. The council has recently announced it has begun work on a project that will use real-time data to improve congestion and traffic management, with Cisco, Davra Networks and Block.

By gathering and analysing real-time data from sensors and data sources, the project will provide real-time traffic information to the people of Swindon and deliver updates to commuters in their vehicles to enable them to avoid congestion. However, it also aims to better meet the needs of local manufacturing businesses by giving live updates to fleet managers who can use this intelligence to more accurately plan journeys and avoid delays impacting on production.

So, what’s different about the Smart Cities approach to traffic management from, say, a Sat-Nav system? While most commercial vehicles such as trucks and certainly their drivers are now connected and using GPS technology to track road conditions and be tracked, the data provided is amalgamated from a number of sources (e.g. police reports, traffic cameras, advance roadworks notifications). This means it is often out of date, particularly in a city, where congestion can build quickly.

The Smart City approach to traffic management provides live information and a central collation and distribution point for other data, providing a one-stop source of real-time data. Live traffic data allows vehicles to be re-routed BEFORE congestion builds, especially when combined with machine learning to make intelligent predictions. For example, where surrounding areas are likely to be impacted by roadworks, or where a local event will impact on traffic flows such as schools, which often start and finish at surprisingly varied times, even within the same city.

And information like this which is obvious to locals is usually alien to drivers from out-of-town, and most definitely not on the radar of the autonomous vehicles that will be commonplace on the UK’s roads within our lifetime. Annual sales of autonomous vehicles are predicted to reach nearly 21 million globally in 2035, according to IHS Automotive, and so they need to be factored in to future traffic planning.

If the Swindon project is deemed a success and represents the beginning of a UK-wide roll-out the incremental benefits are simply huge. Although industry is exploring transportation options with lower environmental impacts, even the most carbon-efficient modes (for example ocean freight) require last-mile delivery by road.

There’s clearly no getting away from the important role road transport plays in the supply chain. Yet digital transport management initiatives delivered through the Smart Cities framework could drive a positive and very welcome boost to productivity by helping to ensure that ‘just-in-time’ happens every time.


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