„Striving For Perfection is Harmful“

When it comes to sustainability, there are great opportunities for optimization in the B2B sector and logistics. Lukas Lehmann from Fraunhofer IML in Dortmund explains in an interview what these are and how a lack of data and fault tolerance hinder practical implementation.

What has changed in recent years?

Lukas Lehmann: If you look at the last ten years, it is the advancing digitalization, the growing importance of data and the increase in the collection of data along the logistics chain – master data of packaging and products as well as transport data.

And more recently?

We are receiving more and more inquiries about sustainable packaging solutions and sustainable packaging strategies. It’s no longer a question of substituting corrugated board or paper for plastic packaging. Operating packaging logistics sustainably is much, much more than just looking at the material. There is a change in the market.

How does this play out in the area of packaging and retail logistics?

In B2B, concerns along the entire logistics chain need to be considered. It’s not just a matter of how I optimally package my products in product packaging. I also have to consider the downstream processes. The basic prerequisite is master data. Of the items that are being packaged, we need length, width, height and weight, but also other properties if they are relevant, such as: Is the product fragile? Does it have certain surface properties? The same applies to the outer cartons and cardboard boxes.

Actually the basics of packaging logistics?

Yes, that’s the little basics of packaging logistics! You can’t optimize anything without data! But often the problem is that this data is not available! Especially with smaller companies. In the case of medium-sized companies, it is often the case that inventories have grown historically, i.e. new products have been added constantly. Already you have the deficit that not of all articles the necessary data are known.

And this legacy prevents you from developing sustainable packaging solutions?

This is an issue that we frequently tackle with customers. Yes, we can work out how to pack them in a volume-optimized way, what their carton set should look like, but as a first step we have to think: How do we collect this master data? There are many innovative solutions here, including camera technology, which is now very good at determining corresponding package dimensions or package volumes.

How does research contribute to sustainability?

Through innovative software solutions, for example, to optimize volume utilization, and through the digitalization of paper-based processes paper-based processes, such as delivery bills. And thus accelerating the flow of information, avoiding media discontinuities and reducing the use of paper. But especially by creating transparency along the processes. Everyone, who orders from Amazon or Otto knows this: in parcel shipping, tracking and transparency along the supply chain is supply chain is perfect. In the B2B sector, it is lacking.

What are the advantages of transparency?

I get key figures on throughput speeds and turnover frequencies and know my stocks, for example
of returnable load carriers such as pallets and containers. I can use the available resources more efficiently.

The technical means are there, they just need to be transferred to another logistics world.

So far, hardly any thought has been given to this. Against the background of the desired sustainability, this is an ever greater problem!

The knowledge is there, but it doesn’t make it into practice! What is the problem?

We always strive to have a 100 percent solution! But we often get very far with 80 percent and make a lot possible. The last 20 percent requires an enormous amount of additional effort! I think that’s where we can still learn a lot: to focus on what already works and start with that!

What role does agile working play?

Perhaps the biggest success factor is to simply try something out! At the IML, we only work agile in larger development projects! Trial and error – you learn from the short development cycles and try to optimize. Another important point is to always have an application reference! It is absolutely important to get very fast and very close to the actual application! We always bring industry partners into the projects or involve them as soon as the project allows. And: Both parties must allow themselves the possibility of of „failure“. Failure in small development cycles. Trying things out that may not lead to the goal. And admitting that you’re taking two steps backward in order to then take three steps forward. This requires an industry partner who is tolerant of „mistakes“. But you also have to allow yourself to make mistakes. It must be okay to have an 80-percent solution, test it to have an 80 percent solution, to test it and to extract the greatest insights from it. To do this, a certain amount of expectation management must be practiced and a certain amount of information transparency must be guaranteed: It is important to share such information in close cooperation with each other and to walk the path together.

by Wolfgang Borgfeld