September 30, 2015
special report | Defense

Trickle-down logistics

Trickle-down logistics

You may not think of the military as a wellspring of logistics innovation. But the Defense Department has a long history of developing (and implementing) cutting-edge tools. Here are just a few examples.

By Steve Geary

When you think about innovative organizations, what comes to mind? Amazon? Facebook? Apple?

If you're a logistician, the military—yes, the people who brought us the $435 claw hammer, the $640 toilet seat, and $7,600 coffeemakers—should be on your short list. Throughout history, the defense establishment has led the way in developing and implementing crucial tools and practices that have eventually seen widespread adoption by the business world.

The Department of Defense (DOD) has been a relentless early adopter of new logistics technologies and strategies. But in many cases, it has been more than just an early adopter; it played a major role in the innovations' fundamental research and development. What follows are just a few examples.

  • Intermodal freight and containerization. Containerization and intermodal transportation are deeply embedded in the way the world moves goods today. The commercial breakthrough for containers happened in the mid-1950s, brought about by visionary trucking executive Malcom McLean. After building and selling a successful motor carrier operation, McLean Trucking, he purchased the steamship line U.S. Lines and led the way in developing the containerships shippers now take for granted.

    McLean deserves enormous credit for that. But in fact, the concept of containerized transportation originated with the U.S. Army. In the latter years of World War II, the Army used something it called "transporters"—standardized boxes that were really mini-containers—to speed up the loading and unloading of cargo ships ferrying goods between the U.S. and Europe.

    When the Korean conflict erupted, the military started using the "transporters" for sensitive military equipment heading to the Pacific Rim as well. In 1952, the Army adopted the term "CONEX," short for "container express," to refer to the transporters. Late that same year, the first major shipment of CONEXes, containing engineering supplies and spare parts, moved by rail from Georgia to the Port of San Francisco and then by ship to Yokohama, Japan, and on to Korea.

    So, Malcom McLean ran with the idea and created an industry, but containerization and intermodal started with the military, not McLean.
  • Roll on/roll off cargo ships. Intermodal carriage and containerization are not the only transportation innovation we owe to the World War II-era military.

    In the fall of 1946, the Atlantic Steam Navigation Co.'s Empire Baltic—a seagoing roll on/roll off (Ro/Ro) cargo ship with a built-in ramp—sailed from Tilbury in the United Kingdom to Rotterdam loaded with 64 vehicles for the Dutch government. Thus began the first commercial Ro/Ro service, which relied on a fleet of three ships: the Empire Baltic, the Empire Cedric, and the Empire Celtic.

    The Atlantic Steam Navigation Co. didn't own the ships, though.

    The Ro/Ros were leased from the UK's Royal Navy, which used the specialized cargo ships during the Normandy landings in 1944. Known as LSTs, short for "Landing Ship, Tank," the vessels were the first purpose-built seagoing ships enabling road vehicles, like trucks, jeeps, and tanks to roll directly on and off. For the D-Day invasion, many of the LSTs were loaded in the United States and unloaded on the beaches of France.

    From this military innovation grew the roll-on roll-off ferry cargo ships of today.
  • The Internet.The Internet is now so ubiquitous, so essential to business operations, that it's easy to forget how recent a development it is. It grew out of work carried out at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with funding from the Department of Defense. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1972, oversaw the effort.

    The first Internet message was sent over the wires from UCLA to SRI on Oct. 29, 1969. By the mid-1990s, the original network was decommissioned. By that time, there was no further need for DOD involvement. Commercial Internet service providers (ISPs) were off and running, and the rest is history.
  • Automated freight payment. In 1998, the Department of Defense evaluated the benefit of re-engineering the freight payment process and abandoning the use of military manifests and government-defined bills of lading. That same year, DOD went all in with a commercial off-the-shelf solution from U.S. Bank called PowerTrack.

    Not only did this support an emerging commercial capability with millions of dollars a year of DOD funds, but it also helped legitimize the overall market for automated freight payment systems. Even if you don't work with U.S. Bank, if you use an automated system, you have DOD to thank. A rising tide lifts all boats.

And these are but a few examples. We could also mention the military's groundbreaking work with radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, global positioning systems (GPS), and even the Internet of Things.

As for what's next, innovations in military logistics will keep on coming, and commercial applications are sure to follow. Delivery drones are already in use at the Marine Corps. Driverless cargo trucks are being tested by the Army. Field-deployable 3-D printing capabilities went forward in Afghanistan.

More innovations—some still on the military drawing board, some in development—are now taking shape. The Army is rolling out leading-edge virtual reality combat simulators to train people in battlefield conditions without an actual battlefield. Perhaps someday we'll train truck drivers the same way.

What the military has learned over the years is that creativity by itself is insufficient, that better is sometimes not good enough. The drive for different—innovating an entirely new approach—may be what's required to win the battle, or even the war.

About the Author

Steve Geary
Editor at Large
Steve Geary is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Tennessee's College of Business Administration, and is on the faculty at The Gordon Institute at Tufts University, where he teaches supply chain management. He is the President of the Supply Chain Visions family of companies, and Chief Operating Officer at ROSE Solutions, consultancies that work across the government sector. Steve is a contributing editor at DC Velocity, and editor-at-large for CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. He is listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in Science and Engineering, and Who's Who in Executives and Professionals. In November of 2007, Steve was recognized for "Selfless Service to Our Nation and the People of Iraq" by the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

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