By Kevin Meyer
I was thumbing through some old magazines that had built up in the mayhem of the past month and came across an interesting article in The Economist on freight transportation. It was actually one of the first lines that caught my attention:
Enthusiasts of the digital economy sometimes forget that bits are not everything. However important information is in transforming business, most of what is actually bought and sold is still physical goods, and those goods need to be delivered to the customer.
That comment triggered some memories. Way back in 2000, during the heat of the first internet boom, like many I was enamoured by all the new business models and concepts of "value" that were floating around. Then I bumped into a guy at an AME board meeting who said "soon we'll realize that business rules are business rules." I scoffed and said it was a new economy. But soon we did realize – about a year later the bubble popped when all those rationalized pretzel-esque business models became accountable to the same concepts of profit and loss that have existed for centuries. I bumped into him again about three years ago and we got to talking about the soaring stock market and he casually said "You know, something just doesn't feel right. I've gone all cash." Once again I laughed and continued to invest. We all know what happened soon thereafter.
Next time I'll probably listen. Promise. Or is it already next time? How is Facebook worth billions? Really? Hmmm… But back to our story on freight.
Unlike information technology, though, freight transport has not evolved much during the past few decades. It takes only a few seconds to choose and buy something from an online store, but several days for it then to reach the purchaser. That process also burns oil, contributes to traffic jams and makes the planet’s atmosphere a little warmer by releasing carbon dioxide. Freight transport could thus use some fresh ideas.
Big trucks, big trains, big ships. A misfocus on so-called economies of scale. At the same time digital online stores and even some manufacturers have learned about the power of one – single piece flow. Agility, lower inventory, less cash tied up, lower risk of a quality problem being discovered too late.
Counterintuitive, but proven in every industry. Including a forgotten method of moving small parcels a hundred years ago.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, underground tubes were used in many cities to speed up the transport of mail between post offices and government buildings. Letters were put into capsules, the capsules into the tubes, and compressed air was then used to push the capsules from one station to the next. It was not uncommon at the time to think that pneumatic post of this sort would develop into a wide network, like telephony or electricity.
Now someone is resurrecting the idea.
Pipenet, a system Dr Cotana patented in 2003 and has been developing since then, is based on a network of metal pipes about 60cm (two feet) in diameter. Instead of air pressure, it uses magnetic fields. These fields, generated by devices called linear synchronous motors, both levitate the capsules and propel them forward. The capsules are routed through the network by radio transponders incorporated within them. At each bifurcation of the pipe, the transponder communicates the capsule’s destination and the magnets pull it to the left or the right, as appropriate. Dr Cotana calculates capsules carrying up to 50kg of goods could travel at up to 1,500kph—so you could be wearing a pair of jeans or taking photographs with a new camera only a couple of hours after placing your order.
One piece flow of consumer and industrial goods. Yes of course it's a wild idea, just like many others. You might be surprised at the cost.
The novelty of Dr Cotana’s approach is that by scaling things down from passenger trains to small capsules, that expense [compared to existing large scale maglev trains] is drastically reduced. Also, the tubes could use existing rights of way alongside roads and railways. In these ways, the cost could, Dr Cotana reckons, be kept below €2.5m per kilometre ($5m per mile). That is a fifth to a tenth of the cost of building a high-speed railway.
The team has, however, completed a feasibility study for a pipeline network in Perugia, a medieval city whose narrow, steep streets make existing means of goods delivery particularly inefficient. This study suggests the system would repay the cost of building it within seven years.
Still skeptical? Yes I am too. But at least it's a real proposal to change how real things are delivered in the real world. Unlike the current, second, dot-com boom.