Monday, 5 September 2016

Do Amazon et al operations worsen health risks?

Some 35 years ago I wrote in Britain's leading logistics journal about the coming boons of online shopping and how it had the potential to disintermediate bricks and mortar retailing. One boon, in particular, was environmental, and by extension health and safety. Through their TVs and computers customers could order their whole weeks shopping from one centre and specially-equipped delivery vans would deliver to home addresses, typically fulfilling up to 50 orders in one tight delivery area, and thus replacing up to 50 customer car journeys to their local superstores. That would mean far less air pollution, traffic congestion and accidents. What was there not to like? But then came Amazon, followed by Ali Baba, et al.

Now when it comes to logistics Amazon is no slouch; how could it be when this year it is estimated they are going to sell 7.2 billion items, which could hit 12.6 billion in just four years, according to one estimate. It has taken warehousing to new levels with automation and has a patent for "anticipatory package shipping" technology. When a Prime subscriber ($99 a year) orders just one item for delivery within two days at no extra charge, Amazon already has a box standing by, ready to label and ship, a service made possible by hundreds of Ph.D mathematicians concentrating on optimising logistics.

In their quest to make their service most attractive Amazon saw prompt delivery as giving competitive edge and it has worked but others are doing likewise, with Britain's leading retailer, Tesco, now promising a three-hour delivery service. The problem, however, arises over environmental risks because more customers than ever are ordering only one or two items for home delivery which previously they would have picked up on the weekly shopping trip to their superstores. That means far more road journeys and concomitant accidents and air pollution.

Air pollution is now the number one ultimate cause of death in Britain, estimated at 60,000 a year and about 80% of air pollution is road transport related. Diesel emissions are the worst single offender, primarily owing to its sub 2.5 micron oily particulates which engine filters cannot contain and which lodge permanently in the body. These particulates are known carcinogens and a major cause of pulmonary diseases like asthma, which afflicts six million persons in Britain alone and is worsening. The health bill for all this growing air pollution is rocketing into billions of pounds a year.

Now it is true that new motive power technologies are now available, like hydrogen fuel cells and electricity generated by solar, wind and hydro, which are clean at both points of production and use. But these are still likely to take many years to replace dirty oil.

There is growing pubic resentment against Amazon's surging flood of cardboard boxes spewing forth from its many distribution centres. In Hamburg, for example, city officials said Amazon withdrew its plan to put a distribution centre near a seniors' centre and kindergarten after residents, local politicians and police complained. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, was miffed at the advent of Amazon's Prime Now centre in her city, warning that it would foul the air, snarl traffic and damage local businesses.

Now, of course, none of this is to say that Amazon, Ali Baba, et al deliberately set out to harm the environment and people's health. The early stages of online shopping must have delivered a net benefit on air pollution but by pandering to people's wants for instant gratification for just one or two products has reversed the early promise of a cleaner environment. Now that Amazon is going into home food deliveries it has a chance to dilute the air pollution issue by offering tempting discounts if buyers agree to fulfil all their household purchases in one hit, say once a week. Rushing through cities to deliver, say, just toilet paper and condoms, two popular Amazon items, is asinine.


Sunday, 4 September 2016

Why logisticians should be global business savants

In recent years businesses have come to appreciate the value of good logistics to give competitive edge, with many board members now having a logistics title, but that does not mean the logistics profession gets meaningfully better, as mayhem in the container shipping world has just revealed. Just as in 2011, when the Japanese tsunami caught many logisticians with their pants down because they had put too many of their supply chain eggs in one basket (Japan), leading to multi-billion pound losses from stalled auto plants around the world, now we have a foreseeable risk from the receivership of Hanjin Shipping Co, South Korea's largest container line and the 7th largest in the world. Fortunately, it accounts for only 2.9% of the world's share of sea container shipping but it threatens to derail the supply chain of global companies that need to send goods well in advance of the year's busiest shopping season.

It will not be a swift mess to untangle because, like airlines, container lines operate in capacity-sharing alliances. That means that customers who booked cargo with other lines, like Evergreen and China Cosco, might all discover that their goods are on Hanjin ships. Meanwhile, around the world Hanjins's ships are being arrested or refused port entry because ports are worried they will not be paid. It could, therefore, take months for owners of cargo trapped on board to retrieve their cargo.

At the root of the container shipping lines' misery is not so much stalled world trade but new ship supply capacity far outstripping world trade growth, leading to a mismatch between supply and demand growth which, says Paul Slater, a Florida-based ship finance adviser, means the whole industry is in "terrible trouble. Frankly, I don't think there's a container shipping company in the entire world that's making any money," he adds.

Hanjin's collapse has caused shipping rates to spike but the benefits are likely to be short-lived. Hyundai Merchant Marine, which itself flirted with bankruptcy this year, said it will take over operating many of Hanjin's directly-owned ships, while its chartered vessels are likely to return to the market for lower lease rates. The risk from this is that unless demand grows faster than supply of vessels then further container line collapses cannot be ruled out.

It's not as though Hanjin's collapse could not be foreseen. Drewry Shipping Consultants said: "We've been warning since 2013 that Hanjin was living on borrowed time because its debt to equity ratio was over 600%."

So what lessons does this have for logisticians? It is not enough for them to know how to ensure goods flow through the global supply chain as smoothly as possible. They must be able to identify all possible risks and put in place contingency plans that either allow rapid recovery or some sort of insurance when goods are delayed by events like Hanjin. The present capacity-sharing alliances of container liners are not in the cargo owners' or forwarders' best interests. What is the point, for example, of logistician studying the final accounts of shipping lines, which should also include the crisis-hit bulkers, to apply formulae that can reasonably predict bankruptcy two years ahead with 90% accuracy, if they don't know in which container line's care their goods will end up? If reform
of the arcane complexity of the industry cannot be had then shippers should see if insurance can be obtained at a reasonable rate to protect them from supply claim risks like Hanjin

There are other measures logisticians should take to warn them of trouble ahead. They could, for example, become more aware of global economic and financials trends, that if left unchecked could create mayhem down the line. Back in January 2007 I warned in print of serious trouble ahead for the banking industry caused largely by their reckless involvement in America's sub-prime housing market. At the time, shipbuilding was on a roll with substantial orders on the blocks. That led to excessive ship capacity overhanging the market because the credit crunch stalled world trade growth. Today's shipping world is still feeling the effects of that. But it is not only shipping that is in trouble. Banks are heavily involved in underperforming shipping loans and so far have suffered heavy losses. Britain's RBS bank is now trying to exit its entire interest in Turkish shipping loans and hopes to be rid of its much bigger Greek shipping exposure. It will be lucky if it avoids a big haircut.