Don’t call it snail mail — this improved mail delivery system was inspired by ants

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Photo: schankz, Shutterstock

By Rebecca Carlson

Tharalelo Mokgokong is way more than your average recently-graduated master’s degree student. In addition to being an avid runner of half marathons, a mentor to underprivileged children, and an advocate for sustainable business development in rural areas, Tharalelo has essentially redesigned the South African Post Office’s delivery system by looking to nature for inspiration.

Tharalelo first heard of biomimicry back in 2012 from an industrial designer friend who told him how the United States Olympic swim team’s suits were utilizing technologies that mimicked shark skin to reduce drag in the water.

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Photo: Tharalelo Mokgokong

Fast forward a few years to when Tharalelo was working on his master’s degree in industrial engineering. During this time, he met the general manager for the supply chain at the South African Postal Service (SAPO). Back then, Tharalelo worked for a warehousing company and was curious about how the SAPO distribution facilities operated. He scheduled a visit to their two largest facilities and soon began studying them closely and identifying opportunities for improvement in efficiency.

“I created a project plan for him [the general manager] where we had meetings every Tuesday at the post offices and supply chain headquarters to develop the actual model,” said Tharalelo.

During an initial meeting, the two decided to concentrate on one main hub located in the northern side of the country. They looked into how many regions and sub-hubs this main hub actually supplied and how many routes the post office used to supply those hubs.

“Basically, we broke it down into hubs, then into sub-hubs, then into routes, then into what type of vehicles are being used, then we looked at the kilometers actually being traveled from main hub to sub-hub,” said Tharalelo.

Tharalelo primarily used the biomimicry design spiral as a methodology for his research. “I identified the problem and then I looked to nature to see which model does it best in terms of transportation from Point A to Point B, which led me to the ant,” he said. “Our objective was to move between Point A and Point B with the most efficiency. The ant colony was the obvious choice.”

So far, Tharalelo’s research has been implemented for a little over a month and only in one region, however, the increased efficiency is already quite promising. The region was operating using six routes from the main hub to sub-hubs. By emulating the way ant colonies move, Tharalelo was able to reduce it down by 50% to three routes. Distance traveled started at 2,196 km and was reduced to 1,349 km, a 39% reduction in kilometers traveled.

But if you reduce the trucks on the road by half, what happens to the other 50% of the truck drivers? Tharalelo’s solution was labor reallocation — retrain some of the drivers to work internally within the organization.

Another challenge that the SAPO can expect from these new changes is different delivery times, perhaps even delivery times outside of the normal 8AM– 4PM working hours. This is only expected while the employees adjust to new routes, however, according to Tharalelo’s research, packages should ultimately be delivered faster than with the old model of shipping.

Despite completing his master’s degree, Tharalelo’s involvement with the SAPO is still strong. He is hoping to expand his work outside of his region and through the rest of South Africa. Additionally, Tharalelo is currently searching for new biomimicry ideas to work on for his Ph.D thesis with the caveat that his work also adds value to his field of industrial engineering.

About the author:

Rebecca Carlson is a program assistant at the Biomimicry Institute. Prior to her current role, Rebecca worked in a number of capacities around the world. Most recently she kept bees in the Peruvian Amazon, conducted environmental education outreach in rural Central American communities, followed legislation in the Vermont statehouse, and coached a youth bike program in Seattle, Washington. She has a BS in environmental policy from Champlain College, where she spent her undergraduate career working as the college’s sustainability liaison.

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet.

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