EMBRACE THE SWARM

Similar thinking has been used…

…in a GM paint plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The wonderful choice of colors that customers now enjoy on new vehicles was playing havoc on the paint line. When one car after another is sprayed black, everything is easy. But when one car is red and the next white, the painting process is slowed down as painting equipment is cleansed of one color to make it ready for the next. (The clean-out procedure also wastes paint left in the paint lines.) Why not gang up all the white cars and do them together? Because ganging up slows the line. A car has to be built and completed as it is ordered, as quickly as possible. The solution embraces the swarm.

In the paint factory each robot painter (basically a dimwitted painting arm) is empowered to bid on a paint job. If it is currently painting red and a car slated to be red is coming down the assembly line, it says, “Let me do it,” and it beckons the car to its paint station. The robots schedule their own work. They have very tiny brainlets, connected to a server. No central brain coordinates; the schedule comes from the swarm of mini-brains. The result: GM saves $1.5 million a year. The equipment requires less paint (due to less cleaning between cars), and keeps the line moving faster.

Railways are now employing swarm technology. Centralized traffic control doesn’t work when the traffic becomes very complex and time cycles are shortened. The Japanese use a bottom-up swarm model to schedule their famous bullet express trains, which boast incredible punctuality. Switching is done locally and autonomously as if the trains were a swarm with one mind. Railway owners in Houston are hoping to get a swarm model running for their rail yards. With their current centrally controlled system, the switching yards are so clogged that there is a permanent train of freight cars circling the greater Houston area as a buffer. It’s like a mobile parking lot. When there’s an opening in the yard, cars are pulled out of the holding pattern train. But with a system based on the swarm model, local lines can autonomously switch themselves, using minimal intelligence onboard. Such a self-regulating and self-optimizing system would reduce delays.

That’s how the internet handles its amazing loads of traffic. Every email message is broken into bits, with each bit addressed in an envelope, and then all the fragmentary envelopes are sent into a global web of pathways. Each envelope seeks the quickest route it can find instant by instant. The email message becomes a swarm of bits that are reassembled at the other end into a unified message. If the message is re-sent to the same destination, the second time it may go by a wholly different route. Often the paths are inefficient. Your email may go to Timbuktu and back on its way across town. A centralized switching system would never direct messages in such a wasteful manner. But the inefficiencies of individual parts is overcome by the incredible reliability of the system as a whole.

The internet model has many lessons for the new economy but perhaps the most important is its embrace of dumb swarm power. The aim of swarm power is superior performance in a turbulent environment. When things happen fast and furious, they tend to route around central control. By interlinking many simple parts into a loose confederation, control devolves from the center to the lowest or outermost points, which collectively keep things on course.

A successful system, though, requires more than simply relinquishing control completely to the networked mob.

 

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This is a blog version of a book of mine first published in 1998. I am re-issuing it (two posts per week) unaltered on its 10th anniversary. Comments welcomed. More details here.
-- KK