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Can Agents Help Your Supply Chain?

Agent technology has the potential to increase supply chain efficiency according to a March 15 AMR Research article authored by Guy Dunkerley, Dennis Gaughan and Nigel Montgomery.

Agent technology allows individual objects called agents to intelligently seek interaction with other objects within a wider system. Each object communicates negotiates and trades with other agents to maximize enterprise benefits.

For example, in a road transport application an agent might be defined as representing a truck looking for a load and a driver. Another agent could be a load looking for a truck. The limitations of the truck, size of the load, its delivery timing requirement and preferences of the driver are all programmed into their respective agents. This allows them to collaboratively see if they can find an ideal outcome.

The authors found distinct advantages to this new technology:

  • Unlike traditional applications, this agent-based system does not need to be stopped and batch processed. The agents constantly interact and proximate solutions can be found almost immediately. New events and new agents are respectively acted upon and added in as they arise.
  • Knowledge, constraints and exceptions are easier to build into each of the agents. Traditional linear programs struggle with the increasing array of real world constraints and local knowledge (think for example about the variety of working time laws across Europe for truck drivers). Agents can be programmed individually, and knowledge developed previously can be constantly fed into their reasoning.

There are disadvantages as well -- including managing the policy, performance and availability of these agents. Additional costs can be incurred when adapting to this new technology, especially if a company needs to overhaul its current system. Another issue is whether or not end users are ready to turn over decision making on supply issues to these agents.

The authors conclude that currently there is not enough field evidence to gauge the true cost of this new technology.

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