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SCDigest Expert Insight: Supply Chain by Design

About the Author

Dr. Michael Watson, one of the industry’s foremost experts on supply chain network design and advanced analytics, is a columnist and subject matter expert (SME) for Supply Chain Digest.

Dr. Watson, of Northwestern University, was the lead author of the just released book Supply Chain Network Design, co-authored with Sara Lewis, Peter Cacioppi, and Jay Jayaraman, all of IBM. (See Supply Chain Network Design – the Book.)

Prior to his current role at Northwestern, Watson was a key manager in IBM's network optimization group. In addition to his roles at IBM and now at Northwestern, Watson is director of The Optimization and Analytics Group.

By Dr. Michael Watson

August 13, 2013

Future Supply Chain- Airships and the Physical Internet

Could Airships Help Make the Physical Internet Possible Or, at Least Change Logistics?

Dr. Watson Says:

...airships may make the physical internet possible.
What Do You Say?

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Dan Gilmore reported on a thought provoking idea several months ago—the Physical Internet

The basic idea is that information flows quickly through the internet as standardized packages.  If shippers could standardize shipping containers, then a physical internet could be built that allows product to move from coast to coast through a series of hubs and with many different trucking companies.  It is an interesting idea—be sure to check out Dan’s article.

Now, here’s another futurist idea, courtesy of a Bloomberg Businessweek article:  Airships for cargo (see the picture from Aeros, a manufacturer of the airships).  The idea of using helium filled airships for cargo is not that new.  However, according to the Businessweek article, the difficulty has always been getting the ship back to earth efficiently.  Supposedly, Aeros is close to figuring this out.

The obvious use for this technology is to move heavy cargo to remote mines and oil fields, to move heavy oversized product, and to move humanitarian supplies to natural disasters.

Previous Columns by Dr. Watson

The Three Use Cases for Data Scientists

Learn Python, PuLP, Jupyter Notebooks, and Network Design

EOQ Model and the Hidden Costs of Fixed Costs

CSCMP Edge - Nike Quote: "It is All an Art Project Until you Get it on Someone's Feet"

Supply Chain by Design: Why Business Leaders should think of AI as an Umbrella Term


But, what if you combine airships with the physical internet?  Airships may make the physical internet possible.

The airships have a carrying capacity of up to 250 tons (which is about 10-15 truckloads) and could efficiently act as links in the physical supply chain.  They could be used to link up distant hubs with a lot of empty space between—Phoenix to Dallas, Seattle to Chicago.  Or, they could be used on links with a lot of congestion—New York to Boston.  I would guess there would be initial worries of having these airships fly over populated areas so they might need to find routes where they can move up the shore or across empty land.

In addition, since a lot of time is lost in going through busy ports and rail yards, they could be used to relieve congestion.  That is, these airships could be part of the ports and rail yards and offload a lot of freight.  Since they can take off vertically, they wouldn’t have to tie up the existing rail or truck infrastructure.

Final Thoughts

The physical internet may be off in the future.  But, applying new innovations in transportation, it may be here sooner than we think.

Recent Feedback

I like the idea of the Airships; it could be a solution to passenger's transport in Lebanon where currently thousands of people and cars flow towards the capital city Beirut every morning, causing stress, pollution, traffic jams, with approximately 90 minutes to 120 minutes needed to cross a 30km coastal route.
Airship route will be safer over the sea which is parallel to the auto route. A bike rental from HUB to office would be complimentary.

Such a project could be 'blocked' by the government who needs the revenue from fuel sales, as highly increasing number of cars continue, boosted by an open market for imports of used cars, as well as a growing market of affordable new cars, in the absence of reliable public transportation.

Karim MINA
Transport Manager Middle East
Schneider Electric
Oct, 02 2013