On another PLANET

By Dr. M. Teresa de la Cruz, Project Manager at ZLC.

Leer versión en español


The three-year, Horizon 2020- funded, PLANET project, in which Zaragoza Logistics Center has played a major role, has successfully concluded its work programme and the results are being published.

ZLC has been deeply involved in this work programme across much of the institution (and previous reports, ‘What PLANET are we on?’, and ‘Drawing a roadmap for the logistics technologies of the future’, can be found on the ZLC website at Managerials Publications). PLANET is more formally ‘Progress towards Federated Logistics through the Integration of TEN-T into a Global Trade Network’ (no, PLANET isn’t an acronym in any recognised European language!)

TEN-T is, however, an acronym of sorts, at least in English. It identifies the Trans-European Transport Network – the major corridors for freight transport, which includes as appropriate rail, road, internal waterways, coastwise shipping, and their associated ports, dry ports, airports, rail terminals, that are critical to the movement of goods into, out of, and within the European Community (and other non-EU countries such as Switzerland, the UK, or the Balkan countries).

That, though, raises a number of questions. Are the identified routes/corridors -which presumably are those which will attract investment – actually the most appropriate. Are they indeed the best option, or simply the most obvious – the lines of least resistance if you will? And is such analysis still valid? Just within the lifecycle of the PLANET project itself, some major external factors have altered, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently, the pattern of trade flows and so potentially the responses that the European economy needs to make. The PLANET project itself was proposed in rather more stable times but war, pandemic and other factors, almost unprecedented in their rapidity, have at least validated the need for work like PLANET, although on the other hand they have necessitated some changes in focus

So what is PLANET about? It stems from the awareness that for Europe generally to be competitive in the modern world we need to be on top of our supply chain game, not just internally but in terms of global supply chains. And we can’t just rely on existing infrastructure, whether that be physical assets like docks and railways, or digital and informational investments. Our logistics systems need to move, fairly rapidly, towards the concept sometimes termed as the Physical Internet. Despite the name, that isn’t primarily about standardising containers and transport assets, it is about information – its flow, its currency, its accuracy, and its ability to be acted on.

Thus, the aim of PLANET is to explore ways of optimising current and emerging transport modes and disruptive technology solutions (and yes, supply chains have quite enough disruption to be going on with thank you, but that isn’t quite what ‘disruptive’ means in this context). And then, efficiently connecting infrastructure, such as that existing or which can be developed on the TEN-T corridors, with new, emerging and current trade routes. (New? Well, sadly it is not unlikely that shipping routes around the north of Russia, or of Canada, through the Bering Strait, may become viable options quite soon).

PLANET has had two strands. Firstly, examining how logistics flows will, or might, evolve in the medium to long term, say 2030 to 2050, and secondly, to examine how new and emerging technologies can support a transition to the ‘Physical Internet’, and from that build an open ICT platform that integrates the solutions or services that new technologies offer.

There are many relevant technologies out there waiting to be harnessed.  To name just the headliners, there is blockchain to create and implement ‘smart contracts’ (and of course the other paperwork associated with flows of goods), machine learning and AI for a whole range of analytic, predictive and forecasting tasks, all enabled by 5G communication. These systems may be informed by Internet of Things applications, themselves enabled by apps such as EGNOS (the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service). There are physical developments – autonomous vehicles, UAVs (drones to you and me), or potentially Hyperloop systems. 3D printing and other manufacturing technologies may change the locations of manufacturing operations and thus the shape of supply chains and distribution chains.

The world is not short of demonstrators and pilots of most of these technologies – indeed, ZLC is involved in quite a few! – but to have an impact these need to be both mature and widely implemented: there are as yet no demonstrators that apply a range of these technologies to real business on a daily basis. Additionally, the various actors tend to have their own particular IT and other solutions so there is a lack of interoperability at the physical level. PLANET aims to promote the concept of a collaborative network of platforms that can be accessible, subject to rules, by the various actors as needed, providing information at the level they need to do their jobs. So the second phase of the work was to create a prototype open, cloud-based ICT platform, a sort of digital twin, to host the simulations and to serve as a framework or umbrella for all the project’s proposed solutions or ‘services’: physical, technological and governance. The concept is termed EU-Global Trade & Logistcs Network(s), or EGTN.

EGTN services would include, for example, the use of Artificial Intelligence better to predict and plan for future flows through ports or warehouses, using ID and IoT for real time monitoring and tracing of locations and condition (temperature, humidity, shock loading events and other characteristics), creation and implementation of blockchain secured transactions, network information (weather, traffic), route optimisation, regulatory compliance and others.

As is usual in Horizon projects the theoretical findings were then validated in ‘Living Lab’ testbeds. ZLC’s role has been precisely to coordinate and orchestrate those testbeds. One looked at movements of e-commerce goods along the Silk Road corridor (China to Poland), another at document management on a blockchain platform for goods moving from the Port of Rotterdam to the UK/Ireland and beyond. The third one explored the optimisation of door-to-door transport along the seawise Asia/Mediterranean corridor. Specifically, this looked at how blockchain, AI and IoT could enhance the efficiency of operations in this corridor from the Far East to the port of Valencia, and then in the ‘last mile’ (or more accurately ‘last few hundred miles’ from Valencia to dry port in Madrid, and onwards into Iberia and further afield, including warehouse optimization). Impact assessment considered what companies usually want – transport and logistics improvement, lower costs, reduced emissions, increased visibility and the prospect of ‘de-risking’ global supply chains from the impacts of geo-politics.

The final aspect of PLANET, again led by ZLC, has been to take these findings and develop a Road Map for further development and adoption of the technologies that will facilitate the Physical Internet, defining milestones along the route and highlighting the interdependencies, prioritisations and sequencing required. The most important factor for development is, of course, widespread deployment – a good network penetration across routes is required through which AI, blockchain and the rest can be deployed. To achieve network effects you really do need a network. Standards too will be of great significance.

PLANET has been a major work programme, involving most of ZLC’s resources one way or another, as well as those of over thirty other partners. The project’s output including White Papers and other resources is being published on the PLANET website, and findings are also feeding directly into the European Commission’s current review of the TEN-T structure and strategy.

For more information please contact Dr. Teresa de la Cruz at [email protected]