How to determine Centers-of-Gravity

Supply chain network design often starts with a Centers-of-Gravity analysis that indicates warehouse locations that minimize transport costs. This page describes how to calculate Centers-of-Gravity.

See Centers‑of‑Gravity Calculator for a live demo of the core algorithms described below.

 

Centers‑of‑Gravity indicate warehouse locations that minimize transport costs


In fact, Centers-of-Gravity are those locations that minimize the sum of weighted distances. Weighted distance is the distance from warehouse to customer multiplied by its demand. If customer A has a demand of 10 and is located 25 kilometers (km) from its warehouse, then its weighted distance is 250 km. The sum of weighted distances - summed over all customers - acts as an indicator for transport costs.


Towards the algorithms - Introductory thoughts


Customer A has a demand of 10 and customer B a demand of 1.
Where is the Center-of-Gravity (CoG)? Somewhere on line A-B, closer to A?


Well, customer A pulls 10 times harder than customer B.
If the CoG moves a distance d towards A the sum of weighted distances decreases (10 x d) – (1 x d).


So, the CoG is right on top of customer A, not somewhere in between A and B!



Though the goal value is the sum of weighted distances, those distances are 'less relevant' when figuring out in what direction to move the CoG: the overall demand force is leading. In the example it has a length of 9 and points towards customer A.


The overall demand force points the right direction, but it does not tell how far to move the CoG. This far?


Or this far?



The smaller the move distance, the less chance of bypassing the CoG, but the more moves to be made. So, start with big moves. If the CoG is bypassed ('overshooting') then the sum of weighted distances will have increased instead of decreased, and the move size should be reduced to half of its size. By then, the force arrow will have reversed its direction (it always points in the right direction). By taking smaller steps each time having bypassed the CoG you will finally end up on top of it! You may stop moving back-and-forth if the move size has become very small. Or alternatively: do not move to a next position if it would increase the sum of weighted distances, but lower step size first (then the force arrow will never completely reverse its direction).




Below you will find a real-time generated animation that visualizes the above process, step-by-step.

Single-Center-of-Gravity algorithm


Initial Center-of-Gravity position

The Center-of-Gravity is initially positioned at the weighted average X and Y coordinates of its assigned customers. This inital Center-of-Gravity position is not optimal (though others often state it is). Imagine there are only two customers, customer A with demand 10 at position (0 , 0) and B with demand 1 at position (100 , 0). The weighted X,Y position is at (9.09 , 0), with 9.09 calculated as (10 × 0 + 1 × 100)/(10+1). If the Center-of-Gravity moves a distance d towards customer A the goal value improves 10 × d (closer to A) − 1 × d (further from B) = 9 × d. So the optimal position is on top of customer A, not at the weighted X,Y position! The optimal Center-of-Gravity has a goal value of (10 × 0 + 1 × 100) = 100, whereas the initial Center-of-Gravity at (9.09 , 0) has a much higher value of (10 × 9.09 + 1 × 90.91) = 182, so 82% higher costs. In realistic situations with multiple customers, the relative difference will be much smaller - less than 5% - as also can be seen in the visual simulation further below.

Moving the Center-of-Gravity in the direction of the overall pull force decreases the sum of weighted distances, if moved the right distance
All forces pulling the Center-of-Gravity need to be summed up to get the overall pull force, which is a vector with a size (less relevant) and a direction (most relevant).

Single-Center-of-Gravity algorithm


On a side note, this algorithm resembles the gradient descent method.

Real-time visual simulation - press the button


Earth is a globe

Note that X,Y on a flat plane (Chartesian coordinate system) needs to be translated into latitude, longitude on a globe (Spherical coordinate system).

All principles remain the same, but formulas become more complicated.
Flat plane?

Multiple-Centers-of-Gravity algorithm


Each single run of this algorithm does the following:

Multiple runs are done, each run starting with different random locations. The best solution out of those runs is presented as final outcome. The higher the number of runs, the more likely the optimal solution will be found. Usually, this optimal solution will then have been found multiple times as well. Note that Centers-of-Gravity may end up in the middle of a lake or on top of a mountain.

The animation shows what happens during a single run of this algorithm: customers (circles) are assigned to the closest warehouse (triangles), warehouses move to their center-of-gravity, customer are reassigned, warehouses move, et cetera, until the final situation is reached where none of the asssignments and warehouse positions change anymore.

START
(index 100)

RUN
FINISH
(index 68)


On a side note, the algorithm is comparable to k-means clustering: cluster analysis performed in data mining and machine learning.


Remarks


Underlying assumption of the Centers-of-Gravity analysis is: transport cost = rate/kilometer (or mile) × distance.
This assumption is only partly valid. Parcel rates are often distance independent within a smaller country or region, FTL pallet rate/km is lower than LTL pallet rate/km, macro-economic imbalances cause direction-dependent rates. And (upscaled) as-the-crow-flies distances are used as an approximation of road distances.

Of course, transport costs are only a part of supply chain costs. The optimal number of warehouses and their locations are driven by many quantitative and qualitative factors such as (future) transport and warehousing rates, future demand (and supply), lead time requirements, inventory effects, supply chain risk/redundancy, and contractual obligations. Nevertheless, it is common practice to run a Centers‑of‑Gravity-analysis to get a view on what warehouse locations to consider, when designing a supply chain network.

Centers‑of‑Gravity Calculator uses a more advanced version of weighted distances, defined as distance × demand (1st weight) × transport rate (2nd weight). The transport rate enables differentiation between a demand volume transported in small shipments versus the same volume transported large shipments, which is less expensive.