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by Dave Gardner

With the American public now trained to expect a supply chain that functions almost instantly, the exploitation of high technology and market changes are vital to fulfill customer expectations.

Alex Stark, senior director of marketing with Kane Is Able, pointed out that, despite the power of modern technology, the logistics section of supply chains must not be simply focused on the latest robots and artificial intelligence. Instead, a prime commitment to consistently move customer products to market quickly and efficiently through the use of this technology is the key.

“Technology is the great enabler of this commitment,” said Stark. “As an example, we now have markers of our trucks that allows us to see every transportation asset at any given time with 100 percent visibility.”

Kane currently sports 20 different facilities totaling seven million square feet of warehouse space, more than 1,000 employees, 600 trailers, and 150 available power units. Integrating all of these involves some complex technology.

Three vital but distinctly separate IT management systems, operating within the areas of transport, warehouse and ordering, must work together to make the company’s commitment to speed and efficiency possible. Full transparency of merchandise locations at any given time is also necessary if the flow of product is to be as quick and streamlined as possible.

Stark emphasized pressure from the renowned “Amazon Effect” of instant delivery within supply chains is very real. Amazon’s performance with delivery has compressed supply chain times while raising question from industry insiders about how much faster products can possibly go.

Above all, a successful supply chain should be invisible as integrated IT systems streamline “noise,” and allows customers to be unaware of the system unless a mistake occurs.

“Remember people go to a ballgame to see the players, and not the umpires,” said Stark.

Legislative changes are also a concern to modern logistics. Stark cited the prime example of how licenses have now been awarded within Pennsylvania for the retail sale of wine and beer within many grocery stores, and this change has added another layer of complexity to destination delivery of these products.

“A change like this creates an additional layer of complexity to the supply chain that we must cope with,” said Stark. “Even the casinos can now bypass the state liquor stores and buy their beverages direct.”

Robots galore

IT and robotic technologies are now being effectively used on plant floors for inventory control and order prediction, hereby offering possibilities for efficiency once thought impossible, according to Mike McHale, president and CEO of Production Systems Automation. As an example, an Amazon order can often be filled within minutes, creating incredible speed to market.

“Because of the advancements within the supply chain, the public has been trained that immediate is the norm and they expect almost instant delivery,” said McHale. “The market must therefore serve these consumer expectations with lower costs.”

Advancements in integrated IT systems and specific system components such as photo sensors that pick merchandise for shipment with amazing accuracy have created situations where dead stock now only occurs in unsuccessful companies. According to McHale, technology has historically advanced within 50-year cycles and artificial intelligence is now about halfway through its current cycle, guaranteeing that breathtaking advancements are sure to continually unfold.

Greater supply chain productivity is an associated issue.

“For example, on a bottling line, robotic systems can now cope with various size bottles on the same line,” said McHale. “These robots are also quickly convertible versus the mechanical systems they replaced, and greater productivity is guaranteed when the bottler can process three sizes all at once.”

No congestion

A rebirth of rail service within the national supply chain is occurring, according to Larry Malski, president of the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority. Malski recently attended a national rail conference in the nation’s capital, and the buzz there focused on the realities associated with mounting highway congestion that truck carriers have no real control over.

“There are many more vehicles on the highways, and anyone who drives can plainly see this,” said Malski. “Yes, there’s big talk about highway expansion but there’s no money for this, and even the maintenance of the existing highways is lagging.”’

This congested situation contrasts with the growth of the Lackawanna Railroad over its 34 years of existence. During 2017, 8,572 cars were hauled as a wide variety of freight items moved within regional supply chains, overshadowing the railroad’s first year when a meager 500 cars were hauled.

The biggest customer using this regional rail involves wheat from the Midwest being hauled within trains up to 100 cars to Mt. Pocono for milling into flour. Industry-specific loads needed for natural gas recovery within the Marcellus Shale geologic formation also are moved to Carbondale where they are off-loaded for delivery into Susquehanna County.

Prime among these loads are trains up to 50 cars containing sand from Illinois or Wisconsin used in the hydraulic fracturing process. A single railroad car can carry five truckloads of this sand, thereby creating transportation cost effectiveness.

Pipeline components for the gas industry, resin pellets for the plastic industry, and unique industrial loads also are spotted on the Lackawanna lines. During 2017 these rails served oversized loads of boilers, turbines, and electric generators on self-adjusting 200-foot-long flatcars.

“This growth of service is all part of the comeback of rail,” said Malski. “We are continually receiving calls for additional access to our lines.”