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I will never forget when a delivery driver walked over to the boss of the engineering workshop working on our eTrailer and blurted out ‘what is the point in that’. It was a hard think to hear but it is always important to hear views – good or bad- when developing your ideas. The guy was a happy chap and the banter was fair enough, but the point was hard. As far as he was concerned, the bigger the better and so has it been this way for as long as Mr Hovis ran out of space in his wicker basket and couldn’t cycle up the cobbled hill as Electric assist bicycles had not yet happened.
Change management within 3PLs has mainly been about small iterative improvements to what exists and this has tended towards the steady increase in size of van in our city.
The question is whether this trend can be reversed. Can smaller be better?
In the world of human power (with a little bit of help from our 250w rated motor) we reach a limit. Every manufacturer must quote 200kg payload now and head towards 2 cubic meters of volume, but we questioned this in our work, and even if you get to these volumes and weights, you still are at a fraction of the volume of a van so you fail in the principle of bigger is best.
The key is mechanisation when you head towards scale. Mechanisation across multiple assets by one person moving a load on the flat without assistance at speed and in safety.
But that is only part of the story, you then need to avoid shipping air! Air is found all over the place, and yes it makes up the universe, but lets stick to the air around parcels. Small mechanised boxes ship disproportionately more air because they are:
- Trickier to fill
- Have space around the box to the next box when you go up stream
- Have a disproportionate amount of space lost to the human delivery agent compared with the space given to the parcels
- Don’t allow for carpet roles… hmmm… why carpet roles?
But they do do things well:
- They allow access to smaller spaces in congested cities
- They are less obtrusive
- They can be used by human power alone
So it is possible to find a sweet spot where the small mechanised box performs better than a van? We think so.
Fresh is our mechanised box and its proportions and door opening are very specific. Its not a standard EU crate size when that could have been a good starting point, it was driven by collaboration with our partners and I will use two examples to illustrate:
The small carpet roll.
The task we were given was to replace the van. What we were not asked to do was take a sliver of parcels that the van currently takes and deliver these more efficiently than the van. If we had done this then the van would still take the same journey into town delivering the items the box could not take. So in the process of design, we had to find a size and shape that would cover off the majority of packages that would typically be taken by van and a 1,7m carpet role became the object or reckoning. In the auto world that my colleagues and I occupied for many years, the equivalent was a set of golf clubs, but if you know your car history I can tell you now that the Lotus Esprit could fit a set of golf clubs – its just that they were rather special golf clubs only made for Lotus Esprits…
The EU specified vehicle trailer
The standard width of a 3,500t trailer is important. If we want to minimize shipped air, then we need to get either 2 or 3 boxes across the width with little space between. 2 would result in a box of around 1100mm vehicle width but 3 results in 740mm and our choice. So 740mm is for multiple other reasons when we look upstream and beyond the last mile, but if we also take a look at last mile on pavements and cycle ways we see a white elephant – metaphorically in the room, and real world in the space a large trike takes up (1100 to 1200mm). 740mm boxes can go almost everywhere that a wheelchair will go, through old city streets, bollards, and infrastructure squeezed out of existing road space. Pedestrians don’t get scared, cyclists can see round and above and don’t get cross. Its all part of being responsible and thinking about the shared space in our cities as equitably shared.
Every feature and every dimension of your product will have a reason for being what it is. Sometimes those design decisions will not become apparent until the whole system starts to unfold and gain momentum.