Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Logistics of Defending Against Asteroids

A respite from working on how to get a package from point A to point B is to think about the meteor which hit Russia a few weeks ago.  Then think whether it was just pure dumb luck that it did not hit Chicago or are we really safe from this?

Unfortunately, it turns out, it is just pure dumb luck.

Which makes the fact that my fraternity brother from college, Dr. Ed Lu (and space shuttle astronaut),
is working on how to defend the earth from asteroids with his non profit B612 a good thing.  It makes me sleep better at night.

So, for a break, watch this quick Tedx video... You will enjoy it and be fascinated.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Should Cost Modeling Comes to Logistics

I wrote back in January, embedded in another article about why people should do "should cost" modeling prior to negotiating rates.  This has caused me to do a lot more thinking about this topic and after doing some analysis I have come to the realization this is the best way to get to what the true cost of freight should be.

It also eliminates all the emotion, speculation and hype of the industry when you read about capacity constraints, driver shortages and other macro economic issues.  Here are the basics:

  1. Break down your suppliers costs into the big driving buckets.  For transportation it is clearly fuel, driver wages and equipment.
  2. Make sure you have calculated in offsets to costs.  For example, the industry is very prone to discuss how much more the acquisition cost  of equipment is with new emissions requirements and other adds.  However, they very rarely (unless you conduct deep research) discuss the vast reduction in operating costs due to better maintenance and fuel consumption.  Each element has to be accounted for. 
  3. Ask what is really going on with driver wages (not what "could" happen).  Many will say the driver shortages will lead to higher driver wages however this has not really panned out.  So, find out what is really going on with the driver wages. 
This does not mean you are trying to ensure the supplier does not make a profit. What it does ensure is you fully understand the true costs driving the pricing, it ensures you understand what the reasonable profit margin is and it ensures you understand what the market is for the products you are buying. 

This process has been used by direct procurement people for years.  Also, I can assure you this is the process your transportation suppliers are using to decide how much to pay for a truck, trailer or container.  There are different components to measure but the process of "should cost" modeling is exactly the process they follow.  You should not be afraid of it nor should you be ashamed of using it. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

J.C. Penny Slows RFID Rollout

I will not go into the details here except to say that an "all or nothing" strategy on almost anything does not usually work and this is no exception.  What J.C. Penny is finding is there are some  applications which make sense and some which do not.

The other big learning is technology is moving fast and for some reason this RFID technology has never been able to deliver on its promise.  What people may find is by the time they figure it out, we will be on to the next bigger, more promising and less costly technology.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Robots and Other Supply Chain Trends - Kevin O'Marah

Believe it or not there is a Kevin O'Marah out there (yes, he spells his name differently than I do) and he is in the supply chain field.  Actually, a very accomplished person in this field.  I have been in a few meetings with him and it is fun to see who the moderator really means to call on (hint: it is usually him).

I write this because I wrote a piece over the weekend entitled "A Drone Delivers Your Package". The article discusses how the use of drones may come to package delivery.  Kevin retweeted this and made a reference to an article he wrote just last week about 5 big supply chain trends.  One of these trends was "Robotics takes off".  While he does not reference drones he clearly articulates, rightfully so, that robotics will take off in the logistics field and the trade off of capital versus labor is starting to favor capital in a big way.

Robots, like the drones I mentioned, are becoming incredibly cheaper at the same time they are also becoming more dexterous and mobile.  Here are the 5 predictions:

  1. Amazon stumbles - A bold but insightful prediction and one which is not so much predicated on them failing but on the brick and mortar guys learning to compete very quickly. 
  2. Africa Becomes Your Most Important Growth Partner -  It is essentially the "final frontier".
  3. The Carbon Tax Happens -  I could not agree more.  A tax, cap and trade or whatever form it takes, we will soon pay for destroying the environment. 
  4. Robotics Takes Off - Enough said.
  5. CSCO becomes the CEO - While this has already happened the rise of logistics and supply chain as the core differentiator makes those who hold this important position more likely to take over the company (see my article: Logistics Eats Strategy for Lunch).
So, we agree... Great predictions here and they are refreshing because they are bold and not the same old thing just warmed over.  Kevin is someone I have followed from back in his AMR days and I highly encourage you all to do the same.  You can read his writings at his blog: Beyond Supply Chain. 

Kevin's tweet is below:
As a side note this is also why people are guarded about all the optimism on the return of manufacturing to the United States.  One has to ask if it is because labor is getting expensive in China relative to labor in the US (when accounting for transportation costs) or is it because robotics have become so good and cheap that you reshore manufacturing in the US to save logistics costs AND you do not employ many people due to automation.

Paul Krugman is even weighing in on this

Does Logistics Eat Strategy for Lunch?

An interesting review of two books about World War II entitled: "When Logistics Beats Strategy". The review states:
"Disciples and devotees of "strategic thinking" might find both books humbling. They should. In wartime, logistics eats strategy for lunch"
Given how many companies develop "War rooms" and discuss business using "going to war" metaphors it is fascinating how many of them refuse to learn the importance of logistics and the role logistics has played in the big battles of our time.

I wrote about this in previous installments about the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Macroeconomic Monday® - Data Mixed, Market Up, Consumers Feel Worse

What a combination of data!  We knew last week was going to be a "big data" week and it sure did not surprise however it certainly was mixed.  It required a view one level down to even try to make sense of what was going on.

First, the market closed over 14,000 for the first time in a long time and for those of you who mistook the economic data over the last 3 years you have really missed a hell of a ride in the stock market.  There are all sorts of reasons why this has happenned and the only thing that matters really is that it did happen and it is now at a frothy level. So, here are the highlights:

  1. GDP - Shrunk by .1%: This is one which requires you to dig down a bit.  The core reason for this is the massive decrease in defense spending in anticipation of the sequester cost reductions.  Yes, government spending does matter and if this does not get resolved we will take 2% - 3% out of GDP.  This was a small glimpse.
  2. Durable Goods Orders - Increased by 4.6%:  Great news showing investment by businesses which generally implies they see a good 2013 coming.  Some of this may have been due to trying to second guess any changes in depreciation rules but overall, it is a good sign.
  3. Consumer Confidence - 58.6 v expectations of 64: The consumer continues to feel the blues and is just not feeling good.  We will need to watch this closely because if this translates to lower spending and the sequester cuts cause the government spending to continue to decrease at the rate it is going, the likelihood of recession will increase dramatically. I am not going so far as to blame the expiration of the payroll tax holiday as I do not think people can even calculate that for the most part.  The bottom line is while the market is growing dramatically people still feel they are one hiccup away from losing their job, losing their house and general economic problems. This causes them to feel bad and hoard cash.  This caused personal spending to miss expectations by .1%. 
  4. Unemployment - 7.9%: While this ticked back up by .2% the number of jobs available has increased and a general feeling is we are rebounding in jobs.  
  5. ISM Index - 53.1:  This was the big news.  Manufacturing clearly continues an increase and had a robust January.  That was really good news. Now if we can get this to improve the employment numbers we may have a real economy going here.  However, the data as one economist sees it says we could get this rebound without a big move in jobs numbers because companies have figured out how to have machines do more and more of the highly skilled work. The old argument in economics always is the trade off of capital and labor and it appears capital may be winning in "The Rise of The Robots". (note: Ignore the politics in the linked post: Just read the facts on labor v. capital)
Overall, I would say it was a great start to 2013 and the data appears like a fairly decent economy.  The risks which are very clear are:
  1. Government pulls back on defense spending for real and takes with it almost the entire GDP.
  2. Employment numbers truly do start decreasing and unemployment never decreases.
  3. Consumer confidence never comes back. A danger to all types of recessions is you never get to "take off" speed because of hoarding and hoarding occurs when people just feel bad about the future.  
That is it for now.. Happy February!!

A Drone Delivers Your Package?

Missy Cummings, Scientist working on Drone
Missy Cummings
Boston Globe
Recently, I watched a fascinating show on Nova entitled:  "Rise of the Drones" and as usual, I never expected to get a logistics thought out of the show however, as usual, one develops.  A key scientist (Missy Cummings, former F/18 fighter pilot and now MIT Scientist) being interviewed for the show had actually said "imagine a drone delivering your FEDEX package...".  Now that got me thinking.

First, I had no idea how far the technology for drones has developed in the last 10 years. What they can do and what they are doing is absolutely amazing.  A scary item is they are readily available with a quick search on Amazon you can find many "drones" for less than $1,000 which can do a lot of things (not the least of which from a privacy concern standpoint is take pictures). Here is one I found which I found especially intriguing for less than $750 and it advertises itself as having everything you need to "start aerial filming".  It is called the DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Drone.

So, what is the implication for logistics?  Well, just like what I have been discussion relative to 3D Printing, there is a chance this could revolutionize air freight delivery in the package space.  Think of these key items:

  • It is easy and cost effective for the package delivery companies to continue doing what they do today for big population centers.
  • The costs increase tremendously for servicing small, less densely populated areas. 
  • They cannot afford the pilots and complex planes just to service a town of 10K and the drivers and trucks are very expensive as well. 
Now, imagine the following scenario:
  • A major population hub is where the large plane from a central sorting site lands. This plane has packages for both truck delivery at the major population center and also packages for all the small little towns that are within a 150 mile radius. 
  • Rather than send linehaul trucks to these small towns (which many have some kind of air strip - there are over 5100 paved runways in the United States), the package company launches 20 drones with packages on board - unmanned and controlled via GPS (One learning from the NOVA show was they are starting to eliminate even the pilot on the ground and go 100% automated GPS flying)
  • A person in the town, local person with a local delivery truck, takes the packages off the drone and sends it back on its way to the central location (perhaps even with returns).
  • This local person does simple pick up and delivery.
While I would have said this is far in the future 2 days ago, now that I have watched this show I am not sure how far it is.  Once again, another technology which not only reduces miles driven, reduces demand for drivers and reduces costs but it actually eliminates many of them completely.