Logistics

Celebrating 20 years of change

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Looking back over the last 20 years of my career in Logistics, it has been without a doubt a very interesting one, with so much change: some for the good and some not so good. I remember the days when logistics was simple all we had to do was take products and get it to the clients ASAP and then invoice.

Oh yes... and somewhere along the line we have to invoice the client. Stock-take was a manual process with lists and lists of Lotus 123 spread sheets that we had, and normally the entire process. Oh those poor stock controllers! Remember the time we still had to function without cell phones? It’s not that long ago – 1993. All we had then was the amazing fax machine, branch spread sheets where faxed, email was not even working properly at the time.

Then came the cell phone and Internet, with normal dial up modems and we thought we have arrived : all of a sudden communication was so easy, until we discovered ADSL and Fibre. Well things have most defiantly changed, Warehouse management systems became the new buzz word and everyone was on a mission to book a trip to Europe to see how the first world was doing thing. I remember being part of the first project team for SAP implementation back in the early 90’s… Man! Was this now a complicated process, and so cumbersome, and the computers was so slow.

Well how things have changed in the last 20 years. Today, if you do not run the latest WMS system you will not survive, if you do not have the latest in Vehicle Telematics you are behind and then there are all the links in between. Live product scanning, live picking and in some instances robots doing the picking. The reality is everything has become instant and our reliance on absolute real-time information has become the number one priority, we want to know things before they have even happened.

Digressing a little, I remember many years back we had to send a 40ft container from Johannesburg to Kampala in Uganda. What a mission! It took us just over a month to get it there with the truck driver having to phone us from pay phones whenever he could find one with, hopefully, enough of the correct change. The one thing that has seen major changes are the border crossings; it still takes just as long with the only difference being the cost of the crossing (now you pay more for the same delay). I remember my transport manager at the time, had to use a map book and a landline to see where he could get fuel on route as well as what routes where usable. Today? Programs such as Road Show and the like have made this massive task a non event, and if you still don’t know, well Google is an amazing friend, or so I have been told.

The reality is, as one of my previous mentors told me, the only certain thing in life is that everything will change, and logistics is no exception. Today, I can with the press of a button know exactly where my container is and if I am really clever, then I can even remotely open the lock on the back of my container from anywhere in the world.

Things like biometrics and facial recognition have become a common occurrence, (not at the border posts though), technology has become the modern day fax machine, we just cannot be without it. The stock take that took us a week now takes us a day with final figures available immediately, what a difference.

The one thing that did not change, is the fact that the more technology we use, the more clever the people become that want to steal and this has been the same throughout the years. All that happened is that the thieves also started using technology, just think about it this way: 20 years ago when someone wanted to steal your car they had to use a coat hanger and hotwire, today, they just use a remote scanner and voilà. The same with logistics.

Now onto the more serious stuff. How has legislation not evolved over the past two decades? 20 years ago our biggest fear was the dreaded weigh bridge and the traffic official – well, we still don’t like them. Now we are bombarded with things like Labour laws basic conditions of Employment, Road transportation legislation, SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) CTPAT, ICAO (talking of which 20 years ago it was still fine to smoke on certain flights and today you cant even take a laptop battery on board a flight), OSH/COID Act but to name a few.

The logistics arena has become so specialised that there is no way that you can even try and be an expert in all the areas, outsourcing has become the name of the game, with 2, 3 and 4 PL logistics models being the Buzz words.

Warehousing has become an absolute speciality by itself with companies specialising in Warehousing, and outsourcing every thing else, even the major retail groups has started to do their own warehousing, and here jumps to mind Woolworths, Pick ‘n Pay, Shoprite, Makro but to name a few, and yet if you go into these facilities you will find that the transport has been outsourced the picking, the dispatching and even the reverse logistics has been outsourced, again proving the point of how specialised this has become (Just bearing in mind that the outsourcing has been done to companies specialising in these specific areas).

Where is this then moving to, you might ask. Well that is a good question and the answer is only time will tell, there is, however, a couple of brave souls that are attempting to predict the future, with the world becoming a very small place and countries opening up, that has previously been impossible to trade with it seems that the general consensus is that technology is only the beginning and that artificial intelligence is around the corner, so imagine a warehouse being completely operated by robots, autonomous trucks driving around, drones flying doing door to door deliveries, does this sound to much like science fiction? Maybe.

I can just remind you of the fact that if someone in 1985 said that we will be able to communicate with anyone anywhere in the world with a watch, he would have probably been shot. The only piece of advice I can offer is try and keep up.

Gerhard van Zyl, Group Operations Director Professional Group of Companies

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