News / E-commerce and 3D-printing – the shape of things to come for our supply chains

first_imgBy Gavin van Marle 23/12/2014 If recent history is any guide to our near future, 2015 is shaping up to be a defining year – the container shipping industry is set to be reshaped into four major groupings, setting the commercial landscape for the best part of the next decade; the deployment of increasing numbers of ultra large container vessels will intensify; while congestion at the major import ports of the US and Europe will become a daily reality – a problem that will be made increasingly more acute with the growing shortage of drivers and delays in delivering goods into the hinterland.At some point in the forthcoming year, the employers and dockworkers in port on the US west coast will have to come to a deal – the current stasis cannot continue unabated. Today’s news that the Federal Conciliation and Meditation Service is shortly to join the fight is surely welcome news, but shippers and their logistics providers should not be under any illusion that the problems on the west coast will vanish overnight. The congestion is caused by myriad factors – indeed, while some go-slows are certainly taking place, the unions are not officially involved in industrial action, so there is potential for things to get worse before they get better.And even if a new master contract is signed, there is the still the chassis shortage; intermodal railcar shortages; the wildcat protests of owner-operator hauliers who have not had a pay rise since 2008; wildcat picket lines formed by truckers from the Teamsters union protesting against the existence of the owner-operator hauliers, and over which the terminal stevedores refuse to cross; and the reluctance of the California Air Resources Board to allow more than a certain number of trucks to call at the terminals of LA and Long Beach during the day to clear the backlog, means that backlog is likely to continue for a number of months, at best.At worse, it could become a near-permanent feature of the container supply chains serving the US, which is ultimately likely to accelerate businesses interest in the reshoring process that is clearly picking up speed. Something similar could happen in Europe, if the law of unintended consequences holds true.2015 will see the continued growth of Asia’s largest economies and the continued emergence of the Asian consumer as the shopper who underpins the global economy. We are not there yet, but at some point in this writer’s lifetime, the high street in China will be the focus of economic power. The net result will likely see manufacturing and the production of consumer goods increasingly return to Europe – firstly in the lower-cost peripheral countries of Eastern Europe and followed by a move to the centre. After all, if Zara’s success has been built on European production why should others not try to emulate this success?That is, of course, assuming that manufacturing processes remains the same, and of that there is no guarantee. 3D printing, for example, has the potential to become a technology that is as disruptive as the internet or container shipping. And while e-commerce has had a huge effect on the way the economy operates, and how supply chains have evolved in recent years – think of the tremendous growth in reverse logistics options as just one example – the possible interaction of e-commerce and 3D printing could revolutionise the way society is structured.Is this likely to happen in 2015? The momentum could well start to gain…last_img read more