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Posts Tagged ‘Logistics’

As you may have heard, West Coast ports are having some labor issues. The Pacific Maritime Association (which represents the shipping lines and terminal operators) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been going at it, affecting about 20,000 workers at 29 West Coast ports. (Can’t name 29 Wet Coast ports? See here.) The LA Times has a nice summary of what is in play. In a nutshell, management claims that the union is engaging in a slow down (effectively striking while getting paid, see here) while the union claims that they are responding to safety concerns (at LA and Long Beach) and that management is misrepresenting their position. In any event, what has resulted is lots of delays and a  slew of ships waiting off the coast for their chance to unload. (Never seen a slew of ships? Check out these images.)

OK, that’s all well and good, but how is this affecting supply chains? The sheer scale of the problem is rather mind-blowing. If it were just a question of losing one port, things wouldn’t be too bad. Ships bound for LA, could be sent to Oakland or Seattle. But it’s the entire West Coast. If the goods need to be offload to an US port, that means going all the way to the Gulf Coast or the East Coast. It’s not clear that is an easy solution. Part of why LA and Long Beach are such busy ports is that they have an entire infrastructure to support them. Even if a ship could get to, say, Charleston, it’s not clear that it would do a lot of good for some of the customers whose stuff is on the ship. If a company’s whole logistics system is based on breaking bulk in the Central Valley, having a bunch of containers in South Carolina is, at best, an inconvenience. (more…)

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Over time, this blog has had a lot of posts about shipping containers. Here is another one.

More specifically , we have from Vox and short video on the history and economic impact of shipping containers and why container ships keep getting bigger and bigger (How cargo ships got so huge — and transformed the world economy, Jan 22).

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Today is a big day for companies in the shipping business. Coming off of the last weekend before Christmas, it is not too surprising that the likes of UPS and FedEx are expecting a massive rush of packages ordered by everyone who gave up on the mall and just ordered it online. In case you couldn’t have guess that for yourself, both the New York Times (Crunch Time for FedEx and UPS as Last-Minute Holiday Shipping Ramps Up, Dec 21) and the Wall Street Journal (A Test for UPS: One Day, 34 Million Packages, Dec 21)have articles today about how shippers have planned to deal with the deluge.

For my money, the Journal article is more interesting if only because it contains nuggets like that e-commerce will soon account for half of all U.S. packages. This video summarizes some of the main points of the article.

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So what should be more profitable for a retailer, selling from physical stores or selling over the web? That’s the question that a recent Wall Street Journal article considers (How the Web Drags on Some Retailers, Dec 1). At first glance, the answer seems straightforward. Web sellers don’t need to rent stores or have staff cooling their heels waiting for customers. However, the reality isn’t necessarily so clear,

While conventional wisdom holds that online sales should be more profitable, because websites don’t need the pricey real estate and labor necessary to maintain a store network, many retailers actually earn less or even lose money online after factoring in the cost of shipping, handling and higher rates of returns.

For retailers that outsource their Web and fulfillment operations, costs can run as high as 25% of sales, industry analysts said.

Kohl’s Corp. says its profitability online is less than half what it reaps in its store. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says it expects to lose money online at least through early 2016 as it invests to build its technology, infrastructure and fulfillment networks. Target Corp. says its margins will shrink as its online sales grow. Best Buy Co. said faster growth on its website will weigh on its profitability at the end of the year.

Click here for a video of the reporter discussing her findings.

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We have posted a few times about how miserable it can be to work in an Amazon fulfillment center. (See for example here.) We have also had a few posts on Kiva robots — both before and after Amazon bought the company in 2012. Kiva produces automation systems for fulfillment centers. These are essentially robots that bring shelves to pickers who select what is needed to complete customer orders. At the time Amazon bought them, Kiva’s clients were firms like Crate & Barrel that while significant catalog/web retailers had far less variety than Amazon. Indeed, one of our posts on Kiva was basically asking when the robot hordes were coming to a fulfillment center near you.

According to the Wall Street Journal, those hordes have now arrived (Amazon Robots Get Ready for Christmas, Nov 19). Back in May, CEO Jeff Bezos claimed that they would increase their number of robots from 1,400 to 10,000 over the year. What difference does this change make?

At a 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse in Tracy, Calif., about 60 miles east of San Francisco, Amazon this summer replaced four floors of fixed shelving with the robots, the people said.

Now, “pickers” at the facility stand in one place and wait for robots to bring four-foot-by-six-foot shelving units to them, sparing them what amounted to as much as 20 miles a day of walking through the warehouse. Employees at some robot-equipped warehouses are expected to pick and scan at least 300 items an hour, compared with 100 under the old system, current and former workers said.

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It doesn’t seem that there should be that much innovation in shipping. Man has plied the sea for ages, so can there be anything new under the sun? The answer is, yes, there can. And it is really, really big. The New York Times had an interesting article on the new Triple-E class of ships that A. P. Moeller-Maersk of Denmark has been bringing into service (Aboard a Cargo Colossus, Oct 3). These things are immensely huge — longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. This video gives an idea of just how large these ships are.

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Have you ever thought about pallets? You know, those wood contraptions that can hold a pile of stuff off the floor while letting a forklift easily scoop up said pile? Here’s a snapshot of one that just happened to be lying around the Northwestern campus.

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So in many ways, there is nothing particularly special about pallets except that they play a key role in logistics and supply chains. They basically make schlepping stuff modular. What is actually stacked on the pallet doesn’t matter; a guy with a forklift can just pick it up and put it on or take it off a truck. Which is not to say that pallets are uninteresting. The people at Planet Money did a whole episode on pallets (Episode 545: The Blue Pallet, Jun 11) that makes for great listening. Here, check it out:

The key point is that there has in fact been innovation in the pallet market. What you see above is your basic stringer pallet. It consists of 15 pieces of wood and a bunch of nails. Note that with those three pieces of wood sandwiched between the other twelve, a forklift can only pick it up from two sides — either the front or back in the picture above. The alternative is to have a block pallet. A block pallet replaces that those three pieces of wood with nine blocks. Those blocks give extra spacing on the other two sides and a forklift can hoist the thing from any side. That additional flexibility increases efficiency. Go to a Costco. They have essentially mandated all their suppliers send stuff on block pallets. If you unload as many tractor trailers as Costco does, the productivity boost from block pallets really adds up. (more…)

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