Tuesday, January 29, 2013

2012 Was A Good Year for Shippers Who Used Analysis Over Emotion

Despite all the noise about how CSA, regulations and a surging economy would create a massive deficit in capacity, what we saw in 2012 was a very shipper friendly environment for those shippers who did not let their emotions runaway with them.  If you stood fast, watched the data and understood the market you were able to reap some pretty good rewards in 2012.  The ATA truck tonnage report even showed a reduction year over year in December.

Bob Costello, economist for the ATA was even quoted as saying in 2013 the outlook is for a sluggish truckload environment.  My personal believe is the rules of good transportation management and procurement management don't change much.  Some highlights are:

  • Always conduct should costing before talking rates.  Understand the costs of every component (Equipment, driver wages, fuel etc.) and the best in class purchasers will know those costs as well as the person across the table. 
  • Don't let emotions and the industry hype sway you.  Stay focused with the data.
  • Understand your personal procurement situation.  Even if the market is "on fire" if you have counter freight to the prevailing freight flows you are in the driver's seat. 
I had one person tell me a long time ago that transparency and accuracy will always prevail in costing and I believe them to be right. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Why I Thought FEDEX Was Best For My 3D Printing Model

I received a lot of comments about my post yesterday concerning 3D printing and how I think FEDEX is really set up to exploit this opportunity.  Many of the comments pointed out there are other similar companies to FEDEX (such as DHL) who could do the final mile delivery.  However, I have not found the discussion compelling as none of them possess the extensive storefronts which are set up as printers already.

Yes, UPS purchased Mailboxes etc. to try to do something similar however there is a big difference.  The FEDEX Office (formerly Kinkos) locations are set up to print and produce where the UPS offices are essentially private post offices.  The keys to being able to exploit the advent of 3D printing are:

  1. Locations which are local and already established to do the printing.
  2. A brand which is already very trusted.
  3. A process which people are already familiar with such as sending your documents for printing. 
  4. An integrated final mile delivery network to do the final delivery of the "printed" material. 
Think of the FEDEX office location as the "transporter room" in the enterprise for Star Trek.  In the United States, no one has such an extensive and integrated network.

I have no idea if FEDEX is thinking of this however my speculation is they are keeping a good eye on the developments. 

Big Economic Week Ahead

Macroeconomics drives everything.  I am reading Warren Buffett's new book "Tap Dancing to Work" and he is fond of saying a fantastic manager cannot do much with a lousy business.  That is true, I believe, of the macro economy as well.  It sets the field of play and in that business, this week is a big one.  Watch out for:

Monday:  Durable Goods Reporting
Tuesday:  Consumer confidence
Wednesday:  First estimate of Q42012 GDP and statement by the FOMC
Thursday:  Wages and Personal Income
Friday: Construction Spending, Employment and Manufacturing activity.

Let's hope for a great week!  Good luck.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

More Impact of 3D Printing - Nokia Gets in The Game

I have written about 3D printing many times and its impact on the transportation industry (read:  Soon a lot less will need to be transported).  Of course, this is a way away and most people I talk to aren't overly worried about it.  "Not in my lifetime" is what I hear most.  This reminds me of the discussions people had in the '80s when we said email will take over communications.  And, we all know what happened there.

Now we see Nokia is issuing standards so people can print their own covers using 3D printers.  This has massive implications.  First, a lot less product will need to be shipped.  Yes, I know these are small but soon it will be bigger and bigger product.  "Designed in California" will be printed and the item will be made on the spot and on demand. Transportation demand will decrease dramatically.

Second, it truly will mean "mass customization".  Mass customization has been a dream for a long time where people have predicted the benefits of large scale batch production coming to products which are made for a consumer of one.  In effect, this will be what 3D printing does.

Finally, it will put a lot of manufacturers out of business in total.  I essentially will make the product myself and will have no need of a "conversion" partner - i.e., the manufacturer.

The big winner in all this could be FEDEX and their acquisition of Kinkos many years ago could be a fantastic application for this.  Imagine the following the next time I want a case for my iPhone:

  1. I download plans for the case I want.  I customize logos, words etc. on the case.  Perhaps I pay $1.99 for the plans for "one time use" and I get them right off the Apple store. 
  2. Once completed I send them to FEDEX (like I do a document today) who routes it to the local FEDEX store (formerly Kinkos). 
  3. The local FEDEX store "prints" the case for $5.00. 
  4. I choose at this point whether to have FEDEX deliver it to my house through their "final mile" network or I pick it up.  
Voila!  No (or very limited raw material) inventory; customization for me specifically, made locally and ready to pick up in 1 hour.  Soon, just like we are used to "1 hour photographs" at Walgreens, we will have "1 hour manufacturing" and FEDEX may be in the best spot for this.  

(Note:  I have never seen anything saying FEDEX is planning this but I just think it makes sense.  In this very in depth and good article from 2011 entitled "3D Printing: The Future is Here" the author says "imagine a time when 3D manufacturers are as common as Kinkos offices completely ignoring the idea that for a lot of items Kinkos / Fedex office could be the manufacturer. ). 

Cost Control Gone Bad..Subway Agrees to Make all "Footlongs" well.. A Foot Long

We have all seen it in just about everything you buy; packaging is thinner (resulting in more damaged product), metal is replaced with plastic, minor features just no longer exist, what was 4oz is now 3.8oz (same price)... well, you get the picture.  To "manage costs" just about every company eventually goes too far.  What is that limit you ask?  It is when the brand promise is violated to save a few cents.

This is the case of the "Footlong" sandwich which it turns out was not a footlong.  At first the company declared that the word "footlong" was more of a trade name and not intended to imply the sandwich was actually a foot long.  Yea right.  And now the company finally comes out and agrees they will make all future sandwiches a foot long.  

I bring this up because all who run companies have to realize there is an unwritten brand promise to customers which cannot be violated or you risk huge backlash.  Virtually every company's single largest asset is its brand and the brand is based solely on trust.  The only reason any brand would command any premium over a commodity price is that the consumer believes somehow the people behind that brand name are doing something no one else is.  So, without knowing what that is (i.e, they trust) people will pay a premium.

When the consumer realizes the trust has been violated they turn on the brand fast and furiously.

This is the reason why there is virtually no intrinsic brand loyalty in air travel.  Most (not all with Southwest being a notable exception) have decided the best way to make money from customers is to declare war on them.  Every consumer of air travel knows it does not cost the company $150 to change a flight.  Yet, the airlines charge it because they are exerting quasi-monopoly power.  Because of this there is no trust and therefore the brand is essentially meaningless.

So, don't forget:  The brand is built on trust and as we see here when the trust is violated, the wrath will come down.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Data Behind The Data on The Housing Market

A lot has been mentioned recently about the housing market and how quickly it appears to be rebounding.  It feels as if the entire country woke up in unison and decided to all go buy a house.  Feels like 2006 all over again right?

Well, not so fast.  It is important to understand where we are coming from and what the possibilities really are.  The graphs below from Northern Trust tell an interesting story:

Home sales, while increasing are still very anemic as compared to the "go-go" days of 2006.  I would never expect it to get back to that level so those who are saying, "when will housing come back" should be asking themselves, "back to what".  Further, you can see existing sales are increasing faster which generally does not have the same multiplier effect on the economy as new construction.

Behind the numbers of the existing sales also includes investors buying homes or blocks of homes to rent.  That element further reduces the multiplier effect.  And, finally, the drag on the economy of incredibly tight lending criteria means it will be a long time, if at all, that we get back to even 75% of the growth days.

Watch this closely, it is good to finally feel good, but don't get burned with unreal expectations.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Fascinating Discussion of "Vehicle Miles Traveled" (VMT), Implications for the Auto Industry and Implications for Automotive Logistics

It is so interesting that the human mind almost always takes previous history and subconsciously projects it out into the future.  It is a real danger when conducting business analysis.  For example, I have always said to those who say GDP is the best indicator concerning transportation volumes that they should not assume a 1% move in GDP 20 years ago is the same as today.  Why? It is because the make up of GDP is not nearly as "freight intensive" now as it was 20 years ago.  Finance, services, health care etc make up a lot more of the GDP now than does industrial production which is the real mover of freight volumes. 

In reading this article concerning Vehicle Miles Traveled - VMT (for automobiles) I am fascinated by the same type of scenario.  We all think that auto sales will move in roughly the same proportions as it has in the past with GDP.  However, what we really need to be looking at is whether driving behaviors are remaining constant.  Once could easily envision an economy growing dramatically yet VMT actually going down which would put a damper or even downward pressure on automobile sales relative to the economy in general.  Here are some key factors:
  • Movement to cities - Less number of miles traveled as people walk and/or use public transportation.
  • Smaller households - As families shrink the need for the infamous "third and fourth car" shrinks as well. 
  • Move to "shared" transportation  - A fascinating development is the growth of people "crowdsourcing" and borrowing each other's items.  A car stays still for a vast majority of the time it is owned and as people share their assets more, less cars get purchased. 
And, the chart below shows some of this happening:

In the end, it is very possible we could have a growing and robust economy yet have far fewer automobiles on the road.  This, of course, has big implications for transportation in the long run because automotive manufacturing consumes a lot of truck and intermodal transportation miles. 

This will clearly not happen overnight and you may say it won't happen in your working lifetime however there is a good chance it will happen and is already started to happen. One thing I have learned about these types of trends (call them "Mega-trends") is they aren't noticed until it is too late and they generally go a lot faster than you expect. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Clay Christensen: How Will You Measure Your Life

I am going to use today's posting to refer you to one of the most brilliant people I have ever met and had the pleasure to listen to: Clay Christensen.  When I attended the General Management Program at the Harvard Business School he taught two class sessions for us and was mesmerizing.  Many of you have probably (hopefully) read his various classic books on innovation starting with "The Innovators Dilemma"  (note: if you are in a leadership position in a company and have not read this book, you do so at your own peril).

He has now written a business / life book entitled "How Will You Measure Your Life".  I am attaching two videos here.  The first is him speaking about this book and the innovation topics in a detailed, entertaining and profound talked at the Linkedin Headquarters.

The second video is his much shorter but also impactful "Tedx Talk" in Boston on this topic.

I will be back to logistics later and I wanted to ensure I did my part to share the wealth of this brilliant man.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Blue and Brown Make Green... Sustainability for The Final Mile

I have written before about the complexity of the final mile in the logistics network.  This includes both the final mile of the delivery and also the first mile of the reverse logistics networks created by final mile deliveries (i.e., Customers tend to order one size too big, one too small knowing they can return.. for example).   What I had not thought about was the unique nature of the sustainability challenges of the final mile network.

Thank goodness there are a lot smarter people than me in this world!

The Post Office (USPS) and United Parcel Service (UPS) have partnered together to share information and build out this carbon information for the final mile in the United States.  This is good news and I look forward to seeing more about this in the coming years.  The sheer volume of vehicles possessed by both of these entities and the fact they are working to reduce carbon gives me hope for continued sustainability initiatives.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Wholesale Inventories Climb More Than Expected

I will have more on this later tonight however my fear about inventories seems to be coming true.  Inventory appears to be building in the supply chain which means the "great restocking" transportation companies tend to expect after the holidays may very well not happen.