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How heuristic software can save millions on transport costs

How heuristic software can save millions on transport costs

Any company that incurs transport related costs stands to benefit from ensuring their vehicles do their pickups and deliveries as efficiently as possible – both in terms of time and distance. And, while there are solutions out there that can help optimise routes, many businesses rely on a combination of human skill and software to ensure they are operating efficiently.

Humans, oddly enough, are actually very good at coming up with reasonable solutions to route optimization problems. We rely on “common sense” to ensure we don’t end up sending vehicles all the way across town because we intrinsically understand this isn’t efficient. Computers don’t have this built-in understanding of efficiency so they are quite bad at solving this type of problem.

Before we begin, however, let’s quickly define what we mean by “this type of problem”.

Multiple Traveling Salesman Problem

Imagine you have a bunch of salesman who have to visit a bunch of stops. What’s the most efficient way for them to visit all the stops? This is known as the multiple travelling salesman problem (mTSP). The mTSP is pretty famous in mathematics because it falls into a category of problem known as NP-Hard (Non-deterministic Polynomial Hard). One of the defining features of these types of problems is that it is not possible to know the solution unless you test every possibility.

Unfortunately, the number of possibilities in a very modest type of route optimization can quickly spiral out of control. Let’s consider a delivery company that has to make 60 stops with a single vehicle. To test every possibility, we would start by picking a point (initially we have 60 possibilities), then another (59 possibilities), and another (58 possibilities), and so on until we had stopped everywhere.

The number of permutations can be given by a function on your calculator called “bang” – it’s denoted by an exclamation mark. Since we have 60 stops, our equation for the number of permutations is given by:

60! = 60 x 59 x 58 x … x 3 x 2 x 1 = 8.32 x 1081

That’s a really big number. To put it into perspective, there are approximately 1080 hydrogen atoms in the entire universe. So in all the stars and planets and dust and gas in our solar system, in our galaxy, in the Andromeda galaxy, in our local cluster, in the entire super structure of all that exists, there are less hydrogen atoms than permutations in this seemingly simple problem. That’s why computers struggle with vehicle routing problems.

Optimizing routes

So humans are pretty good at working on this type of problem because we are able to take “common sense” shortcuts that end up giving us a pretty reasonable solution. The problem is that at some point even we become overwhelmed and simply can’t take into account all the factors required from modern businesses.

Imagine you had the task of creating a schedule for 10 vehicles, with 300 stops, over the course of a week, having to keep in mind that each stop is either a pickup or delivery (with a certain capacity – you can’t overload the vehicles), each location takes a certain amount of time, as does the trips between the stops, but your vehicles only run from 9am to 5pm, so there are time limits as well as capacity limitations.

Vehicles have different running costs – large trucks consume more fuel than lighter ones, but can carry more – they might also require drivers with specialized licenses who have a higher hourly rate. So you need to try and work out whether it is better to send a small vehicle a longer distance (bearing in mind that it can only visit a limited number of stops before its load capacity is reached), or send the larger vehicle because it also has capacity to deliver to other nearby stops.

But, each delivery takes time so the person creating the schedule also needs to ensure that the truck’s route doesn’t leave it miles away from the depot at 4:58pm – meaning that the driver ends up being furious that he or she will get home late. Vehicles also come with a built in range before they have to refuel, so you can’t assume they can drive indefinitely without building in time for refueling stops and driver breaks.

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What happens when some deliveries can only be made at certain times? If several locations require deliveries at the same time, the scheduler has to ensure that all the vehicles are delivering to those locations at the right time while still keeping the overall costs to a minimum.

Human optimizations

In the scenario above, the amount of work a human would have to perform is pretty daunting. Companies pay very smart people to generate their schedules ahead of time. It’s hard, specialized work that costs a lot of money.

But, to demonstrate how a human might approach this problem, let’s consider the following set of locations with two depots, each with a vehicle that has an operating time limit and a range limit (i.e. it may only travel 150Km per day). These limits, in the real-world, would depend on the unique resources and limitations of your own operation. But for now, here’s what we have:

70point-2vehicles

    Intuitively, we know that (unless there is a specific reason) sending the vehicle from the depot in south east (the orange marker towards the right of the map) to locations in the north west (top left of the map), near the second depot, is probably not going to be the most efficient way to do things. We might decide that it is a good idea to simply divide up the points roughly equally like this:

    70point-2vehicles-red-line

      From there it is up to us to try create the most efficient individual routes for each vehicle in order to produce the solution. I actually gave it a bash. It’s really not easy. Here’s what I came up (full disclosure, I had to get some help) shown in Google Earth:

      70point-2vehicles-googleearth

        Not bad, right? There are a couple of cross-overs in each tour, but this is because London is full of one-way streets and is crisscrossed with rivers that mean vehicles have to find nearby bridges, which can affect the course of their optimal routes.

        But there’s a problem. Neither of these vehicles’ tours come in at less than 150Km – one came in at 151.1Km and the other at 150.4Km. You might think I’m being pedantic but, for big operations that rely on efficiency, small differences have a habit of working their way up the chain to become big problems.

        Simply put, I couldn’t do it. From my perspective, this problem cannot be solved. Maybe people with a lot more experience and time on their hands can give it a go and see if it is possible. But, all is not lost. There are software applications that offer route optimizations available. I used one of these to try and improve on my solution.

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        Computer optimizations

        Because of the massive complexity involved in trying to calculate reasonable solutions, mathematicians and programmers have become pretty sneaky in the way they approach things. They abandoned traditional programming techniques and began to use heuristic algorithms, which can produce pretty good solutions in a reasonable amount of time. A heuristic algorithm can look for solutions among many possibilities, but not necessarily guarantee it finds the best one.

        One example of a heuristic algorithms is called the Ant Colony Optimization (ACO), which mimics the way an ant colony forages for food. Initially ants head out in all directions. If an ant finds a food source it runs back to the nest leaving a trail of pheromones. When the next wave of ants set out, some are influenced by the weak pheromone trail and follow it. If they too come across the same source of food, they rush back to the nest, leaving a stronger trail of pheromones that influences the following waves of ants more and more, until eventually the ants make a nice straight line between the nest and their food source.

        By taking sensible shortcuts, implementing a few heuristic algorithms, and making a few assumptions here and there, computer scientists can create a system than can outperform even the best humans. I applied one of these to my problem and came up with this result:

        70point-2vehicles-computer-googleearth

          This is a better solution than I could manage, but it still broke the distance constraints of one of the vehicles – by less than 1Km. The other vehicle made it with a few hundred meters to spare.

          Ok, so we’re getting better. But this is a pretty simple problem. There aren’t delivery time windows, there aren’t vehicle and location constraints – i.e. does the vehicle need to have cold chain facilities, or be able to transport liquid volumes – or any of a myriad other potential stumbling blocks that might crop up in the real world.

          I did manage to run this particular problem on an enterprise system – to see if it is in fact possible.

          Enterprise optimizations

          There are significant differences in the quality of the solution between lightweight programs that use shortcuts (like basing cost calculations only on distance, or only on time) and built in assumptions (i.e. using human “common sense” to divide the map into areas each vehicle will deliver to), and ones that throw significant computing resources at complex real-world problems to produce unbeatable quality optimizations that genuinely produce significant savings on fuel, time, and costs.

          Instead of considering only distance or only time costs, enterprise systems must consider and measure both – just as both are factors in real world optimizations. A delivery truck might require two operators (i.e. a driver and an assistant to help unload) who work on hourly wages. This can have an impact on whether the system routes the vehicle via a shorter, but slower route, or a longer (but faster) one.

          Systems that only optimize the time taken, or the distance travelled, will never be able to get this fundamental balance of costs right because they only ever consider one or the other. Programs that use “common sense” shortcuts will also, by definition, miss out on potential solutions that aren’t intuitive to our minds – and there are many, many, many (uncountably many) of these.

          To generate our enterprise solution, I utilized Optergon, which is in use in over 60 countries around the world and integrates with transport, tracking and logistics companies via an API service. What makes Optergon interesting is that it doesn’t make use of so-called common sense shortcuts. Instead it relies on a combination of heuristic algorithms, including the ACO (mentioned earlier) and simulated annealing.

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          Simulated annealing mimics the process of tempering steel, in which the metal is heated to get the atoms jiggling about with weaker bonds. The steel is then hammered forcing the atoms into a closer, more densely packed array as it cools. This process is repeated until the steel’s atoms are packed as tightly as possible.

          But cutting-edge algorithms and a system that teaches itself as it goes aren’t enough to tackle enterprise level problems on their own.

          Because of some curious features of the mTSP it is virtually impossible to avoid situations in which a solution “looks” great, but isn’t close to what the actual best solution looks like. This is what’s known as a “local minimum”, and is a tricky problem to overcome because you don’t know ahead of time whether the system has found a genuinely good solution, or a local minimum.

          In order to get around this, Optergon had to implement a massively parallel architecture that allows it to work on the same problem, and specific aspects of the problem, at the same time across hundreds of different processes. Sharing tidbits of information and gleaning new insight at every step of the way, Optergon’s individual processes make use of existing and proprietary heuristics to teach the overall system how to generate an unbeatable solution

          With all this in mind, our current problem turns out to be possible. Here’s the solution:

          70point-2vehicles-enterprise

            Solution courtesy of 3DTracking, integrated with the Optergon route optimization API

            In this solution, each vehicle arrives back at the depot within the bounds of the constraints set – one vehicle made it in 148.3Km, and the other in 147.9Km. Pretty tight, but valid.

            So why am I going on about the difference between a few kilometres? Well, for a start, you wouldn’t want a system that generates a magnificently cost effective solution that requires your vehicles to travel 2000 miles on a single tank of gas, carrying 30 tonnes of cargo that it doesn’t have capacity for, arriving at locations at the wrong time, and so on.

            An enterprise solution must produce the most cost effective solution possible within the real-world bounds dictated by the business. Which brings me to my next point…

            Not only did this optimization reduce our costs, it also showed us something we didn’t know before – whether or not it was actually possible to successfully visit all the locations within the given restraints. This makes a system like Optergon useful for determining whether or not it’s even possible to attempt certain things.

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            A good example of where this is useful might be when transport companies quote for business. If they are able to run accurate optimizations on transport contracts before delivering a quote they can be much more accurate and competitive because they know exactly what is possible, and how much it will cost them.

            Comparing costs

            So, apart from the fact that two out of three solutions weren’t valid, what were the differences in cost? Bearing in mind that it is more important to produce a solution that is valid (i.e. possible within the constraints of the business) than a cheaper one that is not. It’s important to compare the distance and times provided by each solution as the cost is essentially an arbitrary reflection of these two components – for the sake of making the math a bit easier, I set the time and distance cost of $5 per hour and $5 per km respectively.

            Real businesses would need to input values that reflected their operation accurately in order to derive the correct costs – although, since the costs are the same for all three optimizations, we can also look at the percentage difference in costs to determine how much better one solution is over another.

            Human solution (with help) – Invalid

            Unit 1 (North west depot)

            • Distance: 151.1Km
            • Time: 35191 seconds
            • Cost: $824.41

            Unit 2 (South east depot)

            • Distance: 150.4Km
            • Time: 32480 seconds
            • Cost: $817.17

            Overall cost: $1641.58

            Computer solution – Invalid

            Unit 1 (North west depot)

            • Distance: 150.9Km
            • Time: 33856 seconds
            • Cost: $821.65

            Unit 2 (South east depot)

            • Distance: 149.8Km
            • Time: 34046 seconds
            • Cost: $816.63

            Overall cost: $1638.28

            Enterprise solution – Valid

            Unit 1 (North west depot)

            • Distance: 148.3Km
            • Time: 33142 seconds
            • Cost: $807.85

            Unit 2 (South east depot)

            • Distance: 147.9Km
            • Time: 34464 seconds
            • Cost: $807.50

            Overall cost: $1615.35

            In essence, the enterprise solution provided by Opteron produced a valid result that was in the region of 1.5% – 2% better than a human (with help), and a human using routing software. Although, this is a very simple problem and that gap would widen up quickly as more and more vehicles and stops were added – but 60 points was more than enough for me. For a company doing a few hundred locations a day, the improvements might be nearer to 10%, or 15%, depending on how good their existing optimizations are.

            Ok, so a couple of percent might not sounds like much. But, anyone who works in a logistics company and knows how much transport costs are would jump at the chance to shave entire percentage points off their costs. This might equate to millions of dollars being saved every year for even moderate sized organizations.

            Don’t forget about the fact that better route optimizations mean less distance travelled, which not only saves on fuel but also on labor and vehicle wear-and-tear costs. And fuel costs are only ever going to go up in the long run (assuming the global economy recovers at some point) so saving on fuel will become more and more of a financial imperative as time goes by.

            And, let’s not forget about the fact that if companies are travelling up to 10% less, then 10% less carbon is being pumped into the atmosphere. Not using enterprise route optimization is not only wasteful in terms of cost, it’s unnecessarily bad for the environment. Additionally, if you know ahead of time what the optimal way to perform your pickups and deliveries are, it means you also know how to pack the vehicles. Obviously, packing the vehicle is important because you don’t want to arrive at the first stop and have to unpack the entire truck to get at the first item to be delivered.

            If you know how to pack the trucks, you also now how to stock the warehouse so that the packers can operate as efficiently as possible, working quickly because everything they need is warehoused in a convenient location. In this way, having enterprise level route optimizations not only saves on transport but can also serve to maximize the efficiency of your operation up and down the chain, from the warehouse to delivery.

            Featured photo credit: Daniel Gimbert via flickr.com

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            Last Updated on September 11, 2019

            8 Most Effective Games and Apps to Learn to Type Fast

            8 Most Effective Games and Apps to Learn to Type Fast

            Computers and cell phones have become an integrated tool in our professional and personal lives that the original methods of using pen and paper may not be so common anymore.

            Although our old-school methods of note taking may not have entirely left us, technology is advancing with no intention of slowing down; iPads are moving into service industries, video calls are taking the place of in-person interviews, and store receipts are making its way into our email inbox – all of which requires the skill of typing.

            Learning a new skill doesn’t have to be boring and never had to be. Thankfully, there are effective games and apps that can help you learn to type fast with swift precision and accuracy.

            Why Typing Fast Matters?

            Learning how to type fast is a game changer. In fact, you can save 21 days per year by typing fast!

            Although shaving several minutes from curating a long email or texting paragraphs in a text message may not seem to be of great significance, the minutes soon do eventually add up and the long list of tasks then evolve into frustration. By the end of the day, time is being wasted, and the work pile is stacked high over your head.

            Why not alleviate some of those frustrations through practice and dedicating your spare time to build muscle memory?

            Learning a simple skillset like speed typing can drastically improve other essential areas in life including time-management and prioritization. Not only does it help you efficiently complete tasks at work and in your personal life, but it also boosts your productivity.

            8 Most Effective Typing Games and Apps

            Everyone learns at different speeds and uses various methods. While some work better under pressure and tight deadlines, others thrive when given ample amounts of time to learn and soak in the knowledge that is being provided. Despite the number of resources that are available in the hollow corners of the internet, it’s all about finding one source that helps you learn at your fullest potential.

            Whether you’re a keyboard ninja or not, here are some effective typing games and apps that allow you to test your speed, accuracy, and maybe shoot some spaceships along the way.

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            For Beginners

            1. Speed Typing Online

              What’s more fun than to type to the story of Alice in Wonderland or the lyrics to “Hey Jude”? Speed Typing Online is an online typing game that allows you to dive into the creative and familiar world of famous books, fables, songs, and even hone your skills in data entry.

              The bright blue frame holds the text, which then turns green after punching in the accurate keystrokes. After the end of the personal timer, a statistics page appears to show you your typed words per minute, accuracy, correct and incorrect entries, and error rate.

              2. Typing Trainer

                Typing Trainer

                is another online platform suited for beginner typists looking for step-by-step lessons. Learning the keys on a keyboard can confusing especially for those who aren’t as familiar or getting adjusted to typing on a computer keyboard.

                Typing Trainer has a collection of step-by-step tutorials that covers everything from sentence drills, introduction to new keys as the lessons progress, and skills test. The Typing Trainer specifically highlights unique features in each lesson including a warm-up section where the user begin to build muscle memory and learn to type without looking at the keyboard.

                The website is also programed to identify difficulties the user is facing when typing specific words or sentences.

                3. TapTyping – Typing Trainer

                  There is the feeling of physically typing on a keyboard and then there’s the feeling of typing on a touch screen mobile device.

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                  Since the use of cell phones has become closely integrated into our everyday lives, learning to type on a mobile is much of a skillset as it is to type on a computer. The mobile typing app, TapTyping – Typing Trainer, allows users to practice while on-the-go making it perfect for commuters who want to practice typing during their down time.

                  The app allows you to challenge other typists around the world with TapTyping’s global leaderboard and test your skills by taking advanced lessons. There’s always room for improvement and with the app, you’ll be able to find your mistakes by watching a heat map of your finger strokes.

                  For professional writers and programmers

                  4. The Most Dangerous Writing App

                    Suitable for writers facing a creative block or on a tight-deadline, the Most Dangerous Writing App is a website that forces your fingers to type as quickly as your ideas.

                    If you stop longer than 5 seconds, everything you had written will slowly disappear from the screen.

                    Sessions are timed from 3 minutes to 20 minutes, or can go from 75 to 1667 words. This online app is perfect to brain dump ideas, write a chapter of a manuscript you’ve been stuck on, or help with procrastination.

                    If you’re up to the challenge, try the hardcore mode – an alternative option where a single letter appears on the screen at a time. This level prevents you from seeing the entire word, sentences, or even correct any spelling or grammatical mistakes until the timer is complete.

                    If you’re wondering, copying and pasting is not an option until each the end of each session.

                    5. The Typing Cat

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                      Looking to upgrade your typing skills? Also working as a personal tutor, the Typing Cat has a list of regular typing courses with the option to try other lessons with more complexity such as HTML. Learning to type code is a another valulable skillset worth adding.

                      Even with disregarded interest in the coding world, using the code course enhances your typing skills and allows your fingers to familiarize itself with uncommon word combinations and placement of punctuations on a keyboard.

                      The coding course can be difficult even for typing whizzes, but it’s all a part of muscle memory. According Psychology Today,[1] only a handful of people actually learn how to type by looking at an actual keyboard, while a majority of the population locate specific keys intuitively through muscle memory.

                      Available courses include EcmaScript 6, HTML 5, and CSS 3.

                      Fun typing games

                      6. ZType — Space Invaders Meet Webster

                        Remember playing the iconic 70’s game that allowed you to shoot tiny purple and green aliens from one end of the screen to the other with a two-bullet laser? It’s hard to believe that Space Invaders just turned 40 , but you can still get the same adrenaline rush with ZType, a typing game with the same shooting concept.

                        Ztype works in waves – stages that must be cleared but instead of aliens, you must type out the words before the missiles destroy your ship at the bottom of the screen. Every so often, longer and mor complex words would appear and if the words are not typed in the allotted time, a series of letters will disperse like missles.

                        The game is quick on the fingers and will still have your heart pumping until the very end.

                        7. Epistory – Typing Chronicles

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                          Although this game does cost money to purchase, it is worth the investment if you’re looking for a refreshing and alternative mode to learning how to type fast.

                          Epistory – Typing Chronicles is a role-playing action and adventure game of a young girl riding a fox in a magical and fictional realm; together they combat enemies in the shapes and forms of words.

                          Once you’re starterted, you almost forget you’re playing a typing game. The paper craft art aesthetics of the game has you captivated by the vibrant colors and character’s storyline, while having you build your typing skills.

                          8. Daily Quote Typing

                            Need some inspiration? Say no more.

                            Daily Quote Typing is one of many gammes available on Wordgames.com – a website that offers a variety of typing games ranging from different levels based on your experience.

                            With Daily Quote Typing, users are able to type out inspirational quotes by famous leaders, inventors, and innovators such as Mark Twain and Albert Einstein.

                            Bottom Line

                            At the end of the day, discipline and patience is what teaches to type faster. It comes down to making that commitment to improving not only your typing abilities, but in a lifelong skill that benefits other areas in life.

                            By practicing daily and using effective games and apps, it’s only a matter of time before keystrokes will become second nature and your brain will adapt to learning other skills faster.

                            Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

                            Reference

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