Science of simulation: Katharina Albert, MD of SimPlan

Katharina Albert explains the intricate elements of her field.
Logistics, INTERVIEWS

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The week that I meet Katharina Albert has been a particularly busy one for her. She has already done presentations at three conferences and made a round-trip between Dubai and Oman. And she’s about to fly to Germany in a couple of days, she says as she sits down in front of me.

She pauses with her introductions to order coffee, before turning back smiling: “I only had three hours sleep last night,” she explains.

But, there is no sign of any weariness as we talk about SimPlan, a firm that uses state-of-the-art simulation programmes to provide consultancy and analysis of companies’ logistics operations; in fact her eyes light up, and the passion is evident in her voice.

“SimPlan is a service provider for the simulation of company processes,” says Albert, who is the managing director for the company.

“I talk to my client, and according to their problem I choose a suitable software package: whether they want a simulation for doing cost analysis and resource utilisation statistics or a 3D animation to visualize a certain concept. Besides doing simulation projects, SimPlan acts as a neutral distributor of different simulation software as well as providing local training and support.”

As the conversation gets more technical, I wonder how I’m going to express the concepts of simulation planning, strategic planning and SimPlan in simple English. But then, as if she read my thoughts (or perhaps the bemused expression on my face), Albert summarises the concept.

“The basic thing is that you, for example, don’t want to change your entire supply chain or equipment, only to figure out two months later that your whole operation has suffered,” she explains. “The simulation model serves as risk-free test environment for process changes. It can be a very useful tool in the tender management process, too. Clients will be able to give specific technical requirements and suppliers can test and communicate their solutions. The client can also better compare and evaluate different proposals of various suppliers to have an objective basis for decision-making.”

“Through simulation, we can look at different scenarios, like what happens if there is a twenty per cent rise in energy prices? It’s not so unrealistic, and if I were a trucking company, that rise could bring me to the brink of bankruptcy. Without a recovery plan in hand, companies could suffer for years.”

“So strategic planning is usually the long term planning that includes the preparing action plans for various possible scenarios. For instance, I could hire a very talented sales manager and he increases my sales by a hundred and fifty per cent in one year, but can my operational department cope with this? Do my warehouses have enough capacity?”

“Simulation also helps us recognise the need for investments in advance. Usually the warehouse will be running at full capacity for half a year before the message finally gets passed to the board of directors that we actually need more space. Then they start running around, and it takes another six months to find a proper location.”

Albert continues, explaining to me that SimPlan leaves no stone unturned in providing the customer with a clear picture of their business processes, resource utilisation and the potential cost-savings that can be achieved. In a multi-cultural work environment simulation especially serves as a very powerful communication tool, she reveals.

“The worst thing that can happen to you is that if you are in the middle of a project phase and you have started installing or applying a concept, and the customer goes, ‘Oh, but I thought this was going to be like this and like that?’ and you say ‘but I explained it in my presentation and technical drawings’. No, if this has happened then you will probably have lost the client by the next project. But if they receive a 3D animation video beforehand, everyone will understand this, from the operator up to the board of directors.

“You can then train your team on the process changes, because usually our operators are really good at what they’re doing in their field, but they might not understand how their decisions at that point are impacting the overall supply-chain at the end. So with the simulation we can show them in a training room and say ‘OK if you do this here, that’s what happens at the end.’ ”

So does Albert feel that SimPlan could work in this region? She laughs and reveals that she was advised against it by many people when she resigned from her reputable job. She got the opportunity to acquire a franchise from the highly respected German SimPlan Group. She believes that this concept of simulation will be a huge success here.

“It’s very well received and there’s a lot of interest, because a lot of companies want to get out of the recession and make some investments and modernise their companies,” she says.

“But before buying equipment or going for a new facility, they really want to ensure that investment is done correctly. And I receive enquiries from airports, ports, manufacturers, logistics providers as well as equipment suppliers.”

“Processes were pretty much self-grown during the peak times in the early 2000’s. Managers didn’t actually have time to really find out what an efficient process would look like. They were growing rapidly and just coping on a daily basis to somehow get the job done, but now many companies are still suffering from lower margins, so using simulation to straighten up their processes and look into cost savings will be very useful.”

“There are a few companies who have in-house departments, back in Europe, to do simulations or temporarily fly in consultants to do the job. Though simulation has proved to be very useful for more than two decades, it’s fairly new for this region still.

In Europe simulation is applied because of high energy and labour costs or a high degree of automation and complexity. In the Middle East it will help to re-design processes according to lean principles and avoid wastage. It is a method that helps raising productivity levels and drive continuous improvement initiatives.”
 

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