Centralized Versus Decentralized Control in Manufacturing: Lessons from Social Insects

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  • Topic: Ant, Complex system, Honey bee
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Carl Anderson and John J. Bartholdi, III (2000). Centralized versus decentralized control in manufacturing: lessons from social insects. Pages 92–105 in “Complexity and Complex Systems in Industry,” Proceedings, University of Warwick, 19th–20th September 2000, (McCarthy, I. P. and Rakotobe-Joel, T., Eds.). The University of Warwick, U.K. 652 pp. [ISBN 0 902683 50 0]

Centralized versus decentralized control in manufacturing: lessons from social insects Carl Anderson† and John J. Bartholdi, III School of Industrial and Systems Engineering Georgia Institute of Technology Atlanta, GA 30332-0205. USA ABSTRACT In our increasingly competitive world, companies must become more flexible, adaptive and responsive. However, this can be difficult in the face of complexities and uncertainties such as worker absenteeism, machine breakdown, and variation in customer behavior. One group of economies that exhibits such flexibility, even in highly unpredictable environments, is social insects: colonies of ants, bees, wasps, and termites. Because insect societies 1) exhibit the flexible and adaptive behavior desired by industry, 2) achieve this flexibility without any central planning or management, and 3) must coordinate many workers, we posit that they may be an important model system for industrial logistics. We explore some of the strong parallels that exist between industrial and social insect operation supporting our claims with case studies from both areas. We highlight issues and insights from our knowledge of insect society operation that may have real practical implications in industrial logistical operation.

1. INTRODUCTION
Many authors have noted that in our increasingly competitive world, companies need to become more flexible, adaptive, and responsive to customers’ needs (e.g. Drucker 1988; Hayes & Pisano 1994; Castells 1996; Kelly 1998). A general shift is reported from the more traditional hierarchybased organizational structure to flatter and more market-based economies. Numerous companies are adopting “supply chain” models in which they attempt simultaneously to increase the integration and coordination between their operations and those of their suppliers and customers (e.g. Bowersox 1991; Castells 1996; Nelson 1998; Sweeney 2000). Unfortunately, faced with the complexities and uncertainties of industry and customer behavior, such integration and coordination in an efficient and adaptive manner can be extremely difficult. However, one group of “economies” that has achieved this goal and has proven extremely successful—and has been doing this not just for many years, but many millions of years—are the social insects: ants, bees, wasps, and termites. Insect societies, a term that refers explicitly to the colony level in social insects, are just as much an economy as any factory and importantly face the same logistical challenges. For instance, insect societies must cope with competition for resources and often must deal with a widely changing and unpredictable environment (e.g. Wilson 1971; Seeley 1995). In addition, colonies may be enormous, requiring the coordination of hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, millions, of workers. Contrary to popular belief, the colonies’ activities are generally not coordinated in a centralized manner by the queen(s) but exhibit a very flat organizational structure. Individual workers do not have a global picture of colony operation but act upon local information in real time using simple rules and simple responses (Bonabeau et al. 1997, 1999; Karsai 1999). The result however, of many individuals concurrently acting in such a manner means that a colony is not just a collection of small-brained individuals, but a complex adaptive system (e.g. Seeley 1997; Bonabeau 1998). Because insect societies 1) exhibit the flexible and adaptive behavior desired by industry, 2) achieve this flexibility without any central planning or management, and 3) they must coordinate many workers, we posit...
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