Beyond the Sea: Optimizing Maritime Routes and Other Logistical Problems
By now, you’ve probably heard of quantum computers and how someday they’ll be able to perform mathematical feats far beyond the reach of even today’s supercomputers. However, you’ve probably heard a lot less about how quantum computers, which rely on sub-atomic quantum physics to perform calculations, will actually benefit your particular industry.
When considering how quantum computers might benefit areas such as supply chain, finance and manufacturing, it’s important to understand that quantum thrives on complex challenges.
The financial services industry, for example, is exploring quantum computing to improve credit scoring, derivative pricing, fraud detection, investment risk analysis, portfolio management and transaction settlement. Manufacturers are hoping that quantum can enable development of new materials to advance new product delivery through innovation. Logistics firms are considering the use of quantum for the optimization of complex supply routes on the journey to improve both operational outcomes and energy consumption.
Turning that vision into reality requires a lot of work to not only build quantum computers powerful enough to meet these business challenges, but also determining how the compute power can best be accessed by experts to solve a particular business problem. Many organizations are experimenting with mathematical models to better understand the art of the possible.
No one knows this better than ExxonMobil. The company, working with IBM Research, recently published a study in IEEE Transactions on Quantum Engineering describing their efforts to model maritime inventory routing challenges on quantum computers, while developing practical approaches for their solution. That research is beginning to bear fruit in giving companies a greater understanding of the modelling possibilities, quantum computing algorithms available and potential considerations for routing problems across any industry.
What Is a Quantum Computer?
Before we can really address how quantum computers might help companies gain efficiencies in areas such as sourcing, procurement, risk and supply chain, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of what makes quantum computers so special.
Today’s “classical” computers use binary circuits with on-off switches to perform calculations – bits can take on values of only 0 or 1. Quantum computing effectively harnesses the power of quantum mechanics for computing. The basic units of information in quantum computers are quantum bits, or qubits, which can exist in combinations of 0 and 1, a property known as superposition. Multiple qubits can also become entangled, which means whatever happens to one affects the state of the other.
A quantum computer’s ability to take advantage of both an atom’s ability to be in a superposition of states and qubit entanglement contributes to their ability to process exponentially more complex calculations.
Quantum Impact on Industry
Maritime shipping is responsible for about 90% of world trade, according to the Maritime Industry Knowledge Centre. Companies that rely heavily on maritime shipping can benefit from new and improved ways of route mapping – in particular, those that account for a multitude of factors that impact efficiency. This included capacity limitations and time windows, which dictate the arrival and departure of shipments.
Exxon and IBM researchers examined different mathematical techniques that could be applied to quantum computers, with the hope they could find a path forward for using the technology to solve decision problems in routing and logistics – more specifically, for maritime inventory routing. The researchers’ identified the best mathematical formulations to represent the routing decisions that companies must make, factoring in variables such as routes traveled, feasible movements between customer/port locations and the order in which each customer/port location is visited in a vehicle route.
Even more importantly, Exxon’s work on maritime inventory routing could be applied to other routing problems impacting vehicles different from ships, potentially helping a variety of businesses improve transportation and logistics applications for overland goods delivery, ride-sharing services and urban waste management.
Quantum computing’s ability to impact chemical and petroleum companies, such as Exxon, extends far beyond route optimization. The industry is also tapping into quantum with an interest in using the technology to improve product design, drilling location selection, refining processes, seismic imaging, and finding surfactants and catalysts.
Quantum computers, which today range from a few qubits to a few dozen qubits, are not yet powerful enough to provide concrete answers for industry’s toughest challenges, but that doesn’t mean you should wait to start thinking about how quantum computing can solve current and future business challenges.
The potential to solve tomorrow’s biggest challenges whether for life-saving drugs, better batteries or supply chain optimization is very real. However, in order to sustain the momentum we’ve made across private industry, government, and academia to date and reap the benefits of quantum computing in the future, we all must start investing in the skills, practical applications, and future use cases from a variety of industries and disciplines for quantum computing today.
The difference between the leaders and laggards for quantum computing will be those that get started now – the future is sooner than you think.