Let’s get physical with the Physical Internet initiative

The Physical Internet is a new and exciting initiative from the materials handling academic community.

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I love conferences and trade shows, and not just for the free meals and drinks. Sometimes I get excited by new products. But, sometimes I’m captivated by new ideas.

Last week in Charlotte, I sat in on a presentation about the Physical Internet initiative by Benoit Montreuil, a professor at Universite Laval in Quebec. Montreuil is one of nearly two dozen supply chain and materials handling academicians from around the world working on the project.

So, what is the Physical Internet. The project manifesto says that it is “Transforming the way physical object are handled, stored, moved, realized, supplied and used, aiming towards global efficiency and sustainability.” 

The idea is this: What if we moved physical goods through the supply chain in the same way we move digital information across the Internet.

The founders contend that there’s a lot of wasted effort getting a product from Point A to Point B in today’s supply chain that results from a lack of global standards as well as a lack of coordination. Trucks, for instance, often travel empty and take longer to deliver product than is necessary because one trucker may be responsible for delivering a load.

Instead, the Physical Internet would replicate what happens on the digital internet. For instance, when I send an e-mail, that message may be broken up into a bunch of individual packets that are sent separately and then reassembled when the message is delivered to my friend.

The Physical Internet could do the same thing by breaking a delivery into packets, or legs. Montreuil used the example of delivering a load from Quebec to Los Angeles. By breaking that trip into legs of say 250 miles, each trucker could drive round trip in a day and probably get a return load. Meanwhile, the load itself would be kept in motion, reducing delivery time by 40 or 50%. Transport packaging would be standard, which would allow for more efficient and cost effective materials and materials handling equipment. Each of the 500,000 + warehouses and distribution centers in North America would become potential dropoff or pickup locations. And, just as you and I may be on the Internet at some times, or, we drop off at others to do say word processing or spread sheets on our computer, loads and product could be in the Physical Internet, or drop out at periods while something happened to that product.

I can’t do it justice, and would urge readers to check out the PowerPoint on the initiative website. While it is still a concept at this point, several corporations are providing support, including Walmart, as is the Material Handling Industry of America. I’m sure this will be years in development, if it goes anywhere, but it is an exciting and powerful idea.


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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