We all know how important the railroads have been to our nation and that rail freight is growing – but anyone who spends time on the interstate system will confirm that the road rules when it comes to moving goods around the country.
Over the next decade, the findings suggest that trucking share of all freight moved in the U.S. could rise as high as 71.4%, dwarfing rail’s projected 13.8%.
Haulage firms also pulled in a record $682 billion in revenue during 2013, says the study, demonstrating the industry’s value to the wider economy.
Aside from the general ease and flexibility of moving goods by road, the economic upturn in the U.S. and expectations that the country’s freight pool
One note of caution comes in the form of a more general concern around the country: the safety and integrity of its infrastructure.
With public spending a challenge following years of post-crash political gridlock in Washington, the state of bridges, roads and ports is a growing concern. Prominent figures like Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi have recently made moves to focus attention on the challenges ahead, but the road ahead will be as bumpy as some of the tri-state expressways, if past form indicates future performance of U.S. lawmakers.
We’ve written before about the challenges to road freight, from coping with fluctuating demand and gas prices to the potential for trucking scams. Nonetheless, trucking remains the backbone of most American supply chains and it doesn’t look like that position of dominance will slip any time soon.
The phenomenon is rarely far from the headlines, however, and more logistics professionals are beginning to analyze the effect that drone technology could have, from internal warehouse management to external distribution.
While the latter has been widely derided as a pipe dream, at least in the near term, due to FAA restrictions and very real concerns over safety, the former may be closer than you think.
The use of drones to improve internal storage operations isn’t such a leap when we consider the existing automation within warehouses and along assembly lines. In fact Amazon, the pioneer of publicity-seeking drones late last year, already has drones at work within its own warehouse infrastructure.
Although we tend to look to the skies when we consider drone technology, that’s more media hype than reality. In some cases flying drones will have uses within the warehouse environment, but the most immediate applications will be for ground drones that can connect up routine tasks.
Some of the suggested areas for drone use in internal supply chain operations include:
Simple A to B product relocation for automated assembly processes,
Automatic replenishment of stocked items when an inventory system flags low levels,
Integrated hybrid human-drone packaging lines, in which drones fill the repetitive but tedious tasks that have high rates of human rework,
Light item lifting to high shelving units typically accessed by human-operated lift tools,
Performing functional tasks during off-peak hours, when skeleton crews are running and employee costs would run into higher rates of pay,
Automated palletizing systems where product dimensions are standard and packing routines do not vary.
Delivery drones that serve external customers will continue to hog the headlines, but the real advantage for supply chain professionals is likely to come from applying the technology internally.
Keep this in mind as you consider adjustments to your warehouse operations in the weeks and months to come!
Logistics professionals work at the real world intersection of simultaneously avoiding disruptions to established plans and making plans for them.
A sound supply chain strategy incorporates not only the most robust, efficient plan to deliver goods and services, but also hires those flexible enough to adjust activities when that plan falls apart.
For business owners, the latter quality can be easy to overlook when choosing a 3PL service. Every provider can tell you what they can offer when everything runs perfectly, but often their answer to what happens when things go wrong is more telling of the relationship your business will have with them.
What to Ask Your 3PL About Operational Bottlenecks
The more specific you get about your own business, the better the answer you’ll receive from a prospective 3PL provider.
Draw up some scenarios that have occurred in the past (or that your managers live in fear of happening in the future!) Present the scenario(s) to your provider, then sit back and let them answer.
While situations specific to your business are best, these are some more general examples you could include in your questions:
A large order needs to be picked and shipped on much shorter notice than our standard agreement (define a time period relevant to your industry); what will you do for us?
A product recall requires us to bring items back into stock from various stages of the fulfillment process. How do you assist us with the planning?
Our product gets rolled from a scheduled shipment at its origin point of manufacture. What alternative arrangements can you suggest to ensure meets the original delivery schedule?
A labor dispute is rumored at a location that is key to our supply chain. How do you help us explore alternative routes and when do we make the decision to implement them?
Pose as many of these situation questions to your 3PL as you require to get a feel for their ability to plan on the fly.
If you struggle with specific situations, try to at least focus on hypothetical scenarios that apply to your industry. The more general the question, the more vague an answer can be, so it pays to put some thought into your interview to give your potential provider an opportunity to deliver a satisfactory answer.
Aim for the Best, Plan for the Worst
If possible, also add a worst case scenario to your interview questions. Make this something extremely unlikely but which will test the hypothetical resources of even the most experienced logistics professional.
What you’re looking for in worst-case scenario planning is the ability to understand and mitigate the risk to your business. Disasters are largely unavoidable and rarely the fault of the 3PL, but they should have an intimate understanding of the threat to your company and a feel for the priority actions that will help minimize the impact to your operations.
Finally, ensure that the level of experience and expertise in those you interview is present in the team that will be handling your business.
In tighter operations this is less of a challenge, as specialist knowledge runs deep and decision makers are more readily accessible. But in more expansive organizations, even with a wealth of resources and experts that answer your interview questions, you’ll need a team that you trust can deliver on those alternative plans.
By getting these specific questions out in the open early on, you give both parties a better idea as to what to expect from the business relationship. Hopefully these worst case challenges never come up, but if they do you’ll feel safer in the hands of a 3PL who knows your industry and has a passion to serve your customers.