A winter like no other
February 20, 2014 - LM Editorial
The impact of this once in a lifetime winter simply cannot be understated when viewing how it has impacted myriad facets of daily life and freight transportation operations, too, of course.
What Old Man Winter has wrought early in the year looking at metrics like sluggish retail sales and declining truck tonnage is obvious to say the least. And while it will not last forever, its impact remains intact for now anyway.
That has been made evident in commentary by all types of supply chain and freight transportation industry stakeholders, whether they are shippers, carriers of third-party logistics (3PL) services providers. In other words, regardless of the job title, weather does not discriminate.
What’s more, they all agree that with a winter like no other, the subsequent disruptions have been exacerbated in the marketplace as the numerous winter storms have canvassed such wide-ranging areas time after time, rather than a typical winter, which has seen a storm impact a certain area or region, rather than ostensibly entire blanket entire regions of the country at a time.
In a recent conversation I had with Transplace Senior Vice President, Consulting and Engineering Ben Cubitt, I gained some insight into how this unique winter is providing some unique perspective on how to navigate the not-so-smooth times when it comes to getting through difficult climate challenges i.e. winter.
“These storms have been huge,” he said, “ and as soon as you recover from one, another hits, which impacts both primary and secondary markets, so if Chicago and Indiana are shut down due to weather-related issues, that has an impact on St. Louis, Dallas, and Pennsylvania, because all those trucks that are supposed to be shipping out of Chicago into these other markets have not arrived, which results in less capacity and really has been the story of the winter.”
The second part to the story, he explained, is that the truckload market is in “relative equilibrium,” meaning that most days there are about as many trucks as there are loads. And when these weather-related disruptions come along, the ability for the network to recover quickly is really not there and quickly leads to a tipping point resulting in missed deliveries and missed pick-ups.
So, where does this leave shippers in terms of dealing with the elements and managing supply chains during this most challenging of winters?
The first, and maybe most basic step, Cubitt, noted, is just coming to terms with it, as it is one a one-day or one-market issue, and it is also neither a carrier issue or a transportation planning issue.
“More than those things, it is a network issue,” he said. “This leads to looking for a broader solution. This requires better visibility and better planning and communication with all of your partners. Shippers need to be in better communication with their 3PLs and jointly with carriers to better forecast what is or might be coming up, which markets are going to be impacted and for how long, what is open, and what is shut.”
This network planning can go a few ways in that if affects different modes, like trucking, intermodal, rail, and parcel.
And it requires understanding from a carrier’s side of who is operating on a given day, or if not, how long will they be down, and Cubitt added when they are back to operating, some receivers might not be ready like retailers with stores or those with mall-based locations.
While a distribution center may get its trucks rolling again, they still may not be able to make a delivery because roads are not cleared yet or the receiver’s facility is still digging out from the most recent storm.
“Again, what is really needed is good communication, because no carrier wants to go to a facility that is closed,” he said. “It is really close coordination between the shipper, carrier, and the 3PL to really say ‘what is the plan today?’”
The theme of communication is one that cannot be sounded enough in supply chain and freight transportation circles. And the never-ending winter of 2013-2014 continues to serve as proof of that. While adverse weather cannot be predicted, Cubitt effectively highlights that it can at least be planned for and dealt with efficiently to mitigate the circumstances as best as possible.
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