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The quiet wind of change: Integrated transport infrastructure

By Jonathan Wright | 11/03/2009 | 7:37 AM

I recently returned from a trip to Shanghai where I was talking to a retail client about developing its supply chain network to support the significant growth it is experiencing in the region. As I sat in the meeting, every 15 minutes or so, the Maglev silently whistled past the office block. This is the fastest, quietest and most futuristic passenger line in the world.

Reaching speeds of up to 431 km/h, the Maglev hovers 10mm above a special track and uses magnets for lift propulsion and braking. Developed by Siemens and ThyssenKrupp, it does not roll, it flies; it has no harmful emissions, emits no exhaust, and is quiet and very efficient. 

While the Maglev is a great step forward towards a more sustainable solution for passenger train technology, the transport industry as a whole is still a major contributor to carbon emissions.  As other industries move towards reducing their carbon footprint, a significant step change is required by transport and logistics providers to achieve similar negative emissions growth. 

One of the most public debates on the issue of reducing transportation emissions is the future of fuel. There has been a fast increase in the development and use of renewable energy sources during the past few years.  Within the transportation sector, the movement from our oil dependency to a more sustainable fuel source is inevitable, and will probably progress through a phased solution, based on transport type.  For example, since they are continuously replenished by natural processes, biofuels (grown sustainably) may be the short- to medium-term solution for planes and trucks.  More sustainable fuel options for cars, meanwhile, have been more aggressively explored beginning with the introduction of Gasohol in the 1970s to the electric hybrids on the roads today.  Last month, a group of leading car manufacturers signed a letter of understanding agreeing to the development and commercial introduction of fuel cell vehicles within the next six years. 

What does all of this imminent change mean for the logistics infrastructure of the future?  While technologies within the transportation industry evolve, so must the supporting network.  This need for change presents opportunities to revolutionize the way the transport industry operates. 

One of the greatest challenges in transportation is the need for improved intermodal capabilities.  A transport infrastructure that does not sufficiently support these capabilities—that is, provide appropriate intermodal connectors--can impede, if not completely hinder, the benefits of this system.  The London Gateway project is the UK’s response to this challenge.  By combining a modern deep-sea container port with a large logistics park, plans are underway to integrate the road, rail, and sea networks into a more efficient and environmentally friendly distribution system. 

The emergence of such multimode port cities where ships, trains, trucks and planes converge to allow for the virtually seamless intermodal transition of goods could provide logistics companies with the opportunity to streamline the transportation of goods from manufacturer directly to the end user, avoiding distribution centers and potentially even stores.  The result could not only drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the transportation process but also improve delivery times and costs. 

There are no doubt a number of hurdles to overcome before such a vision can become a global reality.  In addition to the massive financial investment required to build these new infrastructures, variations in international standards and the need for more robust cross-border customs agreements also present great challenges for logistics providers to overcome. 

But there is still a lot for logistics companies to take from all of these advancements and technological innovations.  Mode switches are an important part of a distribution network, but are often best optimized when combined with a network redesign.  Networks should be reviewed and, where appropriate, redesigned every 10 years or so to optimize the benefits from changes in technology, policy and infrastructure.  Such redesigns can ultimately save up to 10% to 15% of distribution costs.  In the long term, therefore, transport and logistics providers need to look holistically at the end-to-end supply chain, but also consider the likely evolution in supporting infrastructures. 

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About Jonathan Wright

Jonathan Wright

Jonathan Wright is a Singapore-based senior executive in Accenture's Supply Chain Management practice with global responsibility for the company's supply chain fulfillment client work. With 17 years' experience, he is a recognized thought leader in supply chain transformation and sustainability. He joined Accenture in 1997 after five years with Exxon Mobil Corp. Since joining Accenture, Wright has worked in the retail, communications, high-tech, and aerospace and defense sectors. He is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transportation.


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