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Blue Skies Thinking on Green Logistics

In this article, Alan McKinnon considers these potential game-changers and how they may affect logistics’ environmental footprint. He discusses the likely environmental impact of important innovations, including 3D printing and distribution by drone.

Many people associate the ‘greening’ of logistics with rather mundane things like tightening controls on truck exhaust emissions, shifting freight from road to rail and ‘slow-steaming’ ships. Over the next few decades, however, the environmental impact of logistics may change quite radically as the result of a new wave of innovations. If regulations governing the use of drones are relaxed ‘last mile deliveries’ might take to the air. Widespread adoption of 3D printing in consumer markets could eliminate the need for last mile deliveries of anything other than the filaments used to print everyday objects in the comfort of one’s home. For those products that continue to need more conventional forms of distribution, the so-called ‘physical internet’ may prove transformational, exploiting analogies between the movement of emails and physical consignments. This may sound far-fetched, but it has become the long term vision of the EU’s European Technology Platform for Logistics called ALICE. Let’s look at each of these potential game-changers and ask how they may affect logistics’ environmental footprint.

The net environmental effect of autonomous distribution by drone has to be made relative to that of alternative forms of delivery. If the baseline alternative is a personal shopping trip by car for a single item, the drone could offer a net environmental benefit, particularly if its batteries were recharged with renewable energy and the car journey was made on a congested road by a petrol-fuelled vehicle. If the baseline is a well-loaded battery-operated van, powered by clean, low-carbon electricity, and operating predominantly during off-peak periods, delivery by drone is very unlikely to yield any environmental advantage.

Drones, after all, carry one order at a time, as opposed to a home delivery van which in the UK and US would typically deliver around 120 non-food items in an 8 hour shift. Assuming one round trip per hour, including loading and unloading, a drone would distribute only 6% of that number. If all the orders delivered by van were of a size, shape and weight that permitted their distribution by drone, it would take around 15 drones to replace one van. Given this ratio, it would require mass use of drones to achieve even marginal reductions in traffic congestion and emissions. That would seriously impair the quality of the urban environment over which they would smarm like robotic wasps.

3D printing technology may, of course, obviate the need for home delivery by any mode if it achieves wide adoption in mass consumer markets. Its main environmental impact on logistics would be to replace long, complex supply chains comprising several production and storage points and several intervening links with much simpler direct ones moving the bulk powders, resins and filaments used in the printing process. This would cut vehicle-kilometres and the associated externalities. There would be much less inventory in the supply chain and hence less need for warehouse space. The wastage of materials would be greatly reduced and the need for product packaging virtually eliminated. On-demand manufacturing at point of use to the customer’s specifications would remove the need to send products back up the chain because they were the wrong size, shape or type. Indeed there would be no physical chain to re-ascend as only a design-file would have been distributed – in digital form. All of this could shrink the global environmental footprint of logistics.

Although this technology is now finding wide industrial application further up the supply chain, the future prospects of domestic, ‘front-end’ 3D printing may be limited. It may never be able to compete with the economics of batch production in factories and consumers may have to attach a high value to their personalised creations to make home-based printing financially appealing. So while 3D printing could help to ‘green’ logistics, it may not develop on a large enough scale to yield much environmental benefit.

If large quantities still have to be moved then perhaps the development of a ‘physical internet’ will offer quantum improvements in the environmental performance of logistics. Its advocates argue that just as emails find pathways through a single, open global internet and do so in a way that makes efficient use of server and telecommunication capacity, so one day freight consignments may have access to a similar physical network. Although even its staunchest supporters believe that the PI (π) is several decades away, bold claims are already being made for the environmental benefits it will bring.

So will the long term future of green logistics be shaped by unmanned aerial vehicles, desk-top manufacturing and/or a physical manifestation of the internet? I suspect that for the foreseeable future, the environmental sustainability of logistics will be improved by more conventional means, relying on wider diffusion of current best practice and technology. This approach may be less exotic but at least it offers a proven route to a greener logistics future.

Professor Alan McKinnon is Head of Logistics in the Kuehne Logistics University, Hamburg, Germany. He is a co-editor of Green Logistics, whose 3rd edition was recently published by Kogan Page. This article is based on a series of postscripts prepared by the editors for the new edition.

Leading the way in current thinking on environmental logistics,  Green Logistics provides a unique insight on the environmental impacts of logistics and the actions that companies and governments can take to deal with them. Fully updated and revised, the 3rd Edition of Green Logistics takes a more global perspective, introduces new contributors and international case studies that illustrate the impact of green logistics in practice.

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