Food transport software ready to go green

German researchers behind a software package that calculates the cheapest and quickest way of moving food from one place to another hope to create a new version that takes account of environmental impact.

Even within Europe, the food industry has many different modes of transport to choose from. Is road the best way to send oranges from Spain to northern Germany? Or would it be better to ship them by rail or waterway for part of the route?

Road tolls and the rising cost of fuel mean road isn’t the obvious option it once was for international freight. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics in Dortmund claim to have come up with a scientific approach to selecting an alternative that takes account of a wide range of factors.

A consignment’s origin and destination are entered as they would be in a route planner, along with the choice of whether speed, distance or cost is the most important criterion. The system then comes up with an optimum solution.

This is based on more than just maps and prices. The software includes information such as different categories of train, and different pricing systems for different rail connections.

“We need to know what rules apply to the speed, width and height of trains, how many wagons are permitted on a particular section of railroad, and the maximum speed limit,” Kochsiek explains. “Whereas this kind of information is included in road maps, it has to be compiled manually for the rail networks.”

Calculations also take account of capacity utilisation. For example, the lower the number of wagons pulled by a locomotive, the higher the costs.

With a prototype version of the software for optimising time and costs already available, the researchers are now working on algorithms for calculating environmental impact. Future implementations could also allow information such as changes to timetables to be included in the calculations in real time.

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