In a few weeks I’ll be joining Dr. John Langley again at the Georgia Tech Supply Chain Executive Forum, and the theme for the Spring gathering of this always excellent event is “Capacity and Infrastructure Issues Impacting Supply Chain Managers.”
That got me thinking about a piece we did back in 2005, which took a look at a promising new technology for increasing current transportation capacity and throughput (see Technologies to Watch: A Cure for Freight/Port Congestion?).
I thought an update of this story was in order. In summary, there has been limited real progress but some hopeful signs of late, and all told this is one of the more interesting supply chain stories I have run across.
To briefly recap, a company called SkyTech Transportation proposes use of a technology based on something called linear induction motors – vaguely like magnetic levitation, but with many advantages – to move containers and even entire trucks (yes, entire trucks) both above and below a set of rails, using the power of magnets to move the containers and vehicles along. You can get a more detailed view on this technology here: Linear-Induction Motor Technology for the Transportation industry.
The inventors claim the approach has a number of huge advantages for dealing with the transportation infrastructure problem. It primarily would use existing right-of-way by building the new tracks above existing rail lines. Once the infrastructure is built, the cost to operate and move containers is very inexpensive, just pennies per container-mile. It is very eco-friendly, which may in the end be the key (more on that below). It can provide an end-to-end solution, from the ship to any number of potential end points, and significantly improve container ship unloading times as a result. It gets trucks off the road.
In following up on this story, I learned a few things I didn’t pick up back in 2005. It turns out that the original driver for this idea was none other than Malcolm McLean, the legendary founder of Sealand, and the man who “Reinvented Shipping.” For those who don’t know, McLean (who died in 2001) invented the shipping container and the modern container ship. As one book recently called it, the shipping container was “The Box that Changed the World.”
McLean understood he only made money when ships were moving, and he was frustrated by the time it took to load and unload ships even after his innovations in containerization. He somehow found a man by the name of George Scelzo, who was an expert in linear induction motor technology. With Scelzo’s engineering and McLean’s vision, they actually built a huge (room sized), working model in the 1970s of how this automation technology could work to move containers off the ships and all the way to the rail yards. It was computer controlled, and operated in SeaLand’s headquarters lobby for many years. It was designed for the port of in Elizabeth, NJ, at the time the busiest port in the U.S. and Sealand’s main base.
Scelzo says McLean was working with the port authority there, and is convinced that this type of automation, using this technology, would have happened in New York more than two decades ago. However, to raise capital McLean had earlier had sold Sealand to an arm of Reynolds Tobacco. He grew frustrated by the resulting bureaucracy, however, and left the company in 1977. Without him, the vision died. The model was crated up, and is believed to have been sent to Temple University, where if it isn’t in a landfill it is at least still in the crate.
Decades later, a man named Bruce Dahnke, who had run several trucking companies, was looking to solve the same infrastructure issues. He found Scelzo through his research on McLean’s idea, and then formed SkyTech (Scelzo continues separately to do linear induction motor work, including plans for initially launching the Space Shuttle or it successor using LIM technology, as well as launching planes off aircraft carriers.) Dahnke is lobbying in Washington DC, Sacramento and the Port of Long Beach some days, making presentations to high level groups on others, but after exhausting most of his savings from his management career chasing this dream, he also drives a truck at night to keep paying the bills.
So what’s the latest?
SkyTech went down some dead ends. They had hoped, as we wrote in 2005, to build a prototype of the technology moving a truck at the transportation center in Pueblo, CO, and had some of the funding required to do so. But they found that states and ports that might put some money up would only do so for projects in their own states, not in Colorado. SkyTech also had hopes for a pilot project from the rail terminals to the truck yards in Chicago, but that hasn’t gone very far, for a variety of reasons.
SkyTech is optimistic that California at least is going to do something relatively soon. There are 60,000 trucks per day and growing coming out of the port of Long Beach. Traffic congestion and pollution are huge concerns of residents, and while the delays seen in 2005 abated a bit last year, the long terms projections are still dire, so importers are also pressuring for a solution. California has been losing some container business to other ports.
As a result, California voters approved a $22 billion infrastructure bill last November. As always, that money will be spread around, and often on political considerations, but a lot also likely on merit. There are competing ideas and technologies, but the SkyTech approach seems to have the right stuff to me. What’s really helping now is the increasing emphasis on the environmental impact, which has grown even in just the last two years. Here, SkyTech has a very strong story, in addition to other advantages.
There are a number of studies going on in California. Something will happen, maybe even before the end of 2007. Dahnke says, as just one example, that using this technology, ships could be unloaded at a rate of less than one minute per container, versus about 6 minutes now with current crane technology.
Is Malcolm McLean’s vision of 30 years ago the answer to today’s infrastructure challenges? Maybe so.
What are your thoughts on transportation infrastructure generally, and the SkyTech approach specifically? Do any readers have experience with McLean’s original vision and model? What do you expect to happen in California? Let us know your thoughts.