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Tue 31 Oct 2006 08:00 PM

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Generation next

While technology has increased efficiencies in freight transportation, the logistics industry must be prepared for the next generation of innovative solutions, which will revolutionise the way cargo is moved. Issa Baluch looks into the future

The technological revolution has helped logistics companies to harness the power of information at the flick of a switch. The benefits of implementing cutting-edge transportation systems are already evident throughout the Middle East, but it’s important to continuously develop such innovations to move the industry further ahead.

New vehicles, fuel sources and transport infrastructure are currently being created and the logistics industry must be prepared for future changes.

Of course, there are some fundamental differences between the requirements of passenger transportation and freight transportation – although future demand for both categories is expected to increase considerably. While passengers will have the freedom to travel at cheaper prices to a wider range of destinations, freight transportation is also expected to boom, as businesses place a greater premium on the deliver of goods at predictable times.

Historically, it was customer demand for cheap and reliable shipping that spurred the development of new freight transport machines and their corresponding infrastructure. However, the transport technology of the next 50 to 100 years must do more than simply meet those demands. It must also minimise lives lost, negative impact on the environment, visual intrusion, noise pollution and petroleum consumption. It should also continue to guarantee the fast, predictable delivery of raw material for manufacturing and products to end-users. Keeping these new guidelines in mind, freight transport of the future will have the following characteristics:

• Increased fuel efficiency.
• Less reliance on petroleum.
• It will not interfere with nor be delayed by passenger travel, whether it is in motion or at rest in its port/terminal.
• Instead of moving port-to-port or terminal-to-terminal, it will also move door-to-door.
• It will not be affected by inclement weather.
• A reduction in time spent at ports or terminals will add greater value to the goods.
• Customers will be offered more choices.

One of the most important characteristics of freight transport in the future will be the combination of transport with information and communication technologies. First, it will be intelligent, or “smart,” meaning that it can provide detailed information about its location and the condition of its cargo at all times, through the use of RFID. Second, it will probably utilise electronic guideways instead of physical and visual guideways, like the rails of today’s railways or the painted lines of today’s highways. This will mean new sources of control over transport. In fact, control will eventually be transferred from its traditional human source (the driver/pilot/operator) to infrastructure-linked control systems.

Ocean Transport

Today’s container ships carry 8000 to 10,000 TEUs, but these are sluggish vessels that can only travel at about 20 to 24 knots, and are even slower in bad weather. Fast ships are being developed which will be able to carry just as much, but travel twice as fast, at maximum speeds of 41 knots.

If fast cargo ships are to truly revolutionise ocean freight, seaports and container terminals will have to evolve to accommodate them. To accommodate bigger container ships, many ports will have to undertake major dredging projects. New technology means that ships will not only get bigger; they will also require specialised equipment. It is likely that dedicated terminals for new ships will be developed at major hub ports, while smaller, older ships will be shifted to minor ports, leading to the development of more hub and feeder systems.

Air Transport

The good news about high oil prices is that they encourage the development of new jet technology that focuses on creating more cost-effective and fuel-efficient aircraft. Airlines will continue to favour long range, wide-body aircraft, but fuel consumption will become an even greater concern. Therefore, we will likely see much lighter materials used. Other possibilities for aircraft technologies of the future are:

• Vertical take-off. This will eliminate the need for airports with runways, and will increase door-to-door capabilities.
• Rocket propulsion for travel in the earth’s ionosphere.
• Building with composite materials, which are very light and cost effective, and which do not shrink and expand in mid-air the way metals do.

Airports and air cargo hubs must also look to the future and re-examine their strategies. The historical role of air cargo terminals was building, receiving, breaking, storing, and transiting shipments. At these traditional terminals, no value was added to shipments. In fact, traditional terminals could even diminish airfreight’s inherent value (time) by slowing down the transit process. But they can no longer afford to do this, for airports are key ingredients in economic development. According to Professor John Kasarda of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: “Airports will be as important to business location and urban development in the twenty-first century as automobiles and trucks were in the twentieth century, railroads were in the nineteenth century, and seaports were in the eighteenth century.” The airport cities and cargo hubs of the future will demand better, faster ground handling and value-added services if they are to fulfil their goal of generating new concentrations of commercial activity.

Land Transport

There is an urgent need to move freight off highways. This means finding ways for passenger and freight transport to co-exist, even in congested urban settings. We recognise that demand for trucking will not decrease any time soon, because it is currently the only way to provide door-to-door delivery. But there are some solutions to be considered:

• Intelligent highways will allow the dynamic allocation of road space. They control access to the highway based on whether a journey is being made to transport non-essential, high-value, or priority freight. The “smart” automobiles and trucks travelling on these roads will be able to receive information from the highway and respond appropriately.

• In an automated highway system (AHS), specially equipped cars, trucks, and buses will travel under computer control in special lanes. An AHS will offer improvements in trip predictability, operation in inclement weather, mobility, and air quality.

• We must develop flexible vehicles that can operate on both road and rail. This will increase their mobility and reach, and it will multiply the available road/railway track on which they are able to travel.

• Magnetic levitation (or “Maglev”) features high-speed vehicles that are propelled along a physical guideway by magnetic repulsion. Lifted above the guideway, they can travel at 400-500 kilometres per hour without engines. Maglev technology is in use for passenger transport and will become an important mode of freight transport in the future because it is fast, quiet, and cost effective, and it reduces dependance on fossil fuels.

• Freight pipelines are used to move encapsulated freight underground, with the aid of air pressure, linear induction motors, or hydraulic systems. The capsules can move at speeds up to 15 metres per second. Freight pipelines are especially useful for transporting components within factories or raw materials in mining operations.

One hundred years ago, the technologies we utilise today only existed in the imaginations of those inventors and innovators who dared to dream of them. When we look at the future, we cannot be afraid to think big.

We cannot confine our thinking to the standard trucks, planes, ships, and trains of the present day. Will we be able to “beam” goods from one location to another, or build a trans-oceanic bridge? The only limit to freight transport in the distant future is our imagination.

Issa Baluch is chairman and CEO of Swift Freight International. The above is an excerpt from his book, ‘Transport Logistics, Past, Present, Predictions’.