Working on an electronics project at the moment, I’m constantly impressed by how far things have come in terms of larger suppliers getting stuff out quickly. Having ordered some transistors from RS Components today, I discovered they have an evening cut-off at 8.30pm for same-day (free) shipping! Screwfix will now dispatch (and indeed deliver) seven days a week. When involved in rapid prototyping, this kind of service is just what’s needed: the simple fact that I was lacking a few of a particular type of transistor can stall a project so it’s essential to be able to get my hands on this stuff fast. I think I might have just sounded a little bit self-important there (sorry) – but I have work to do and can’t stand it when simple things stop me moving forward.
Of course, “retail” used to be how we got stuff in a hurry. Indeed, RS does have a trade counter just down the road in Crawley (one-hour round trip) so it’s not even far away. However, high-current, low-resistance N-Channel MOSFET transistors aren’t something they keep in stock there… presumably because (and I just don’t understand this!) there isn’t much call for them. I tried Maplin of course – we are surrounded by branches in Crawley, Epsom, Sutton, Guildford and more – but their range of MOSFET transistors is poor and none had the characteristics I needed… plus I needed 10 and Maplin seem to have a stock policy that extends to a maximum of two of any component…. okay for occasional hobbyists but not much good when building a 4-channel controller (don’t ask what for – that’s a secret right now – but it’s not what you might think). So, in the absence of worthwhile retail outlets, we are stuck with rapid delivery.
Delivery by drone, as currently promoted by Jeremy Clarkson for Amazon (though it apparently remains as far-off a concept as Virgin Galactic) is of course a miraculous idea… and whilst it’s unlikely to be available in Dorking for a while, it’s another way to get stuff right when you need it. Will other companies develop drones too? Actually, it’s unclear. To make it work for customers, they’d need to have huge warehouses located physically close to population centres. They’d also have to have a stock mainly comprising low-cost light-weight items suitable for flying to customers (actually ideal for electronic components but Amazon don’t really sell many of those). I’m not sure even Amazon will really be able to make drones work to their fullest: there will be such a small range of items available for drone delivery, in so few areas, that even with the best will in the World, customers are more likely to be frustrated by Amazon’s inability to fly items after it (eventually, perhaps) gets launched.
So what exactly is the future of delivery? Well, if you’ll pardon the pun, there are a lot more ‘drivers’ behind the transformation of future delivery than perhaps we realise.
The Maker Revolution
I’ll start with an obvious example. 3D printing is touted as changing the way we get what we want – with the promise that we will make, rather than buy, many of our future goods. It’s some way off (about as far-off as drone delivery, probably), but once 3D printers become truly useful as well as affordable, deliveries may be required for raw materials, but much less for finished product. Except, well, I’m still having trouble becoming a true believer in 3D printing.
Why am I not convinced? Take books and magazines. For years, we have had the ability to print in 2D (on paper and a variety of other materials) yet it’s never been economical to print our own books. Even if it was, the hassle of folding and binding a book is enough that it is still regarded as an artform… best left to master bookmakers (for one-offs) or factories. Why should it be any different for plastic products, electronics or clothes? We’ve been able to make our own clothes for years, and yet we are buying more than ever (and our move to online means that they’re getting delivered by courier, too). Perhaps the general public simply aren’t terribly creative, or perhaps we prefer the thrill of acquisition to that of accomplishment. Perhaps we simply don’t have time to design and make very many of our possessions.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m certain that 3D/4D printing will be every bit the revolution that 2D printing was. But I think it is unlikely that each of us will have a printer that prints everything we need. Imagine what a printer would look like that could print (say) a TV, a bath or a family-size lasagne on demand…. crazy? Yes. It is much more likely that specialised 3D printers, each designed for specific purposes, will allow localised custom manufacture: factories built to produce custom items. Same result, but each printer would be far better utilised, reducing costs and improving the quality of the results. You can actually think of your local Domino’s Pizza as a 3D printer – just one that is manned by people. You order what you want (including custom-designed pizzas of course), it is laid out on the dough, cooked, boxed and – yes – delivered. In the future, I don’t doubt for one moment that Domino’s will be assembling their pizzas using machines rather than people (sorry guys – the job of master pizza-maker has its days numbered!). The need for delivery will, of course, remain.
OK – now we are getting serious. We already know that the move to ‘online’ has massively affected delivery. Imagine how many fewer CDs have been shipped since the advent of music downloads… and of course books are just starting to give way to eBooks, reducing shipments of both raw materials and finished products. Increased data speeds have also allowed video to move online – so now we aren’t shipping nearly as many DVDs as we used to. The problem is, virtualisation is generally limited to products that can be reduced to data… so whilst it has brought both entertainment and learning into the virtual world, it’s going to be a different matter when it comes to furniture and clothes.
Much is being made of our transition to a lower-carbon economy, especially in the wake of the Paris agreement, and one major aspect of that is in reducing the number of miles travelled by the products we use. But what impact will this have on delivery services? I think the answer comes from what a truly local, low-carbon economy looks like. Most modern couriers operate from a central hub – usually somewhere in the middle of the country – and each night trucks take parcels from local depots to the hub, and bring parcels back, ready for delivery locally the following day. It’s a very efficient system, because it ensures that all the vehicles are well-utilised (i.e. full) and everything is moved rapidly. Nevertheless, it does seem dreadfully inefficient when you consider what happens to a parcel addressed locally that would be delivered by a neighbouring depot. As an example, a parcel being sent only 10 miles can end up travelling well over 200!
Another striking national operation (but a one-way example) is run by Ocado – the UK’s favourite online supermarket (as voted by the Which? consumer organisation for the last five straight years). The system is uber-efficient in every way – from the amazing robotic warehouses (known as CFCs) to their clever use of a hub-and-spoke delivery system that moves items to local areas via trunks (big trucks) and then from local distribution points to customers via custom-deisgned Mercedes Sprinter vans. They’ve recently re-designed their vehicle bodies, increasing the capacity of the Sprinters by 40%, and they’re in the process of opening two new CFCs – no small undertaking given that each takes three years to build and commission. Even with all four CFCs up and running (expected 2017) it’ll be impossible for Ocado to be considered local: producers still have to get their products to the CFCs, and delivery takes place from there.
By contrast, many local producers still maintain their own delivery services. In every town, there are independent takeaways employing spotty teenage delivery drivers on scooters or in small cars. Stationers, in many cases, continue to make their own deliveries and so do others. It’s an example of where it makes more sense to maintain your own service than to rely on someone else’s.
I think the future of localisation is local hubs – something that is being pioneered right here in Dorking by a Community Interest Company (CIC) known as Food Float. The rationale is simple – to provide an alternative route to market for local producers, whilst providing consumers with a more sustainable, ethical alternative to supermarkets. I’ve been consistently surprised by their success – the organisation now sells its produce regularly on the High Street, and makes deliveries to many of the finest restaurants in the town, as well as to homes and businesses. The original idea of delivering on a milk float (hence the name) gave way to a small, economical van, but the support for the service is testament to the quality of the food and the dedication of everyone involved. The future of services such as these will be driven by demand: by keeping things local and refusing to take on significant overheads, Food Float are able to be competitive with supermarket pricing whilst actively supporting the community in which they operate. As more and more people discover the service, it continues to grow and flourish. It’s a ready, working template for other towns to copy, and I think that is exactly what will happen.
Is it possible that the materialism of the 20th Century will give way to a ‘simplification’ in the 21st? It seems a faraway concept now, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that ‘stuff’ doesn’t make people happy. Could materialism simply go out of fashion, giving way to a more sustainable ‘make do and mend’ mentality? It would certainly be a meaningful way for each of us to begin protecting our planet from the pollution caused by industry, and conserving precious raw materials. A simpler, but more fulfilling life, where we grow more of our own food, make our own clothes and generate our own power doesn’t fit with today’s capitalist requirement for consistent economic growth (a fundamental predicate on which our economies are based and the reason for all the pain in times of recession). Capitalism is, like all its alternatives, flawed. It is possible that in a new, sustainable economy, the imperatives will be different. There’s no doubt in my mind that the proliferation of delivery services at the end of the 20th Century represents a side-effect of capitalism and globalisation… so it’s possible that given large-scale economic change, such services will find themselves much less necessary. At the very least, we may see a reduction in national, hub-and-spoke style services, giving way to local deliveries from community hubs, as a more gradual change takes place that see us rejecting globalisation and instead supporting our local community. Perhaps, if Amazon see it coming, they will be the ones to build community supply hubs around the country – or perhaps, someone else will end up ‘disrupting’ Amazon by creating just such a thing whilst they are still working out how to fly small, lightweight items like books, CDs and DVDs around on model helicopters,,,, see what I did there?