It's no secret that the logistics business is highly underrated. As a journalist covering the industry, I'm often greeted by blank stares when I try to explain the business to friends who work in sexier industries.
Truth be told, the logistics business continues to fascinate me. This month's cover story ("Harry Potter and the magic of distribution," page 34) examines the painstaking measures that book publisher Scholastic Inc. took to make sure this summer's Potter release went off without a hitch.
Needless to say, 12 million copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—the largest single printing in book publishing history—showed up at distribution centers and retail outlets on July 20 under a blanket of heavy security—and right on time. The logistics community coordinates releases like this all the time—be it the annual release of Electronic Arts' wildly popular Madden NFL video game each August or the holiday debut of a smash hit like last year's Wii gaming station from Nintendo.
In Scholastic's case, the company took unprecedented steps to ensure that all 12 million books would be available across the United States and in 29 other nations on the same day. The plan to ensure that no books were delivered early was not an act of magic, but a carefully planned and executed distribution effort that involved Scholastic's logistics team and a core group of carriers. Preparations began in January, well before Scholastic had the completed manuscript.
Although entertainment releases like Harry Potter tend to get the most press, logistics professionals come through in more critical delivery situations every day, whether it's the timely distribution of temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals or the delivery of vital medical supplies to the operating room.
Then, of course, there is the enormous responsibility of getting emergency relief supplies to areas stricken by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the deadly tsunami that engulfed parts of Asia in late 2004. And let's not forget one of the most sophisticated and vital supply chains in operation today—the process of getting food and supplies to our troops overseas.
The list of crucial logistics functions goes on and on. Heck, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are even studying how to create a supply chain to support a permanent space station on the moon.
So the next time someone gives you a blank stare when you try to educate them about the vital role played by the logistics community, ask them exactly how they think their copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows got to the retailers' shelves this summer. Contrary to what they might believe, it's not done by magic.