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The beginnings of logistics

Even before the invention of the wheel, materials were transported, handled and stored. Even then, the effort required especially for the material flow was enormous – initially without any degree of automation. The term intralogisticsis still quite young, but the underlying mechanisms are ancient. We venture a look into the past and show you the beginnings of logisticsas well as intralogistics:

About the logistical challenges of the pyramids and Byzantines

No question, logistical challenges were already there thousands of years ago. The heftiest logistics challenge at that time undoubtedly was the construction of the pyramids. Not only did its granite blocks weigh over 50 tons, but they were also mostly quarried from sources as far away as 800 kilometers. At that time, an entire dedicated port was not uncommon for this type of logistics.

Especially in the military segment, logistics, as we understand it today, did not only grow within well-researched civilizations such as the Romans. The Byzantine Emperor Leontos VI wrote c. 900 A.D.: “It is the business of logistics to pay the army, to arm and organize it properly, to equip it with weapons and implements of war, to provide for its needs sufficiently and in good time, and to prepare every act of the campaign accordingly, i.e. to calculate space and time, to estimate the terrain correctly in terms of the army’s movements as well as the enemy’s resistance, and to regulate and order the movement and distribution of one’s own forces in accordance with these functions, in a word, to disposition.” How far the military, as well as the modern warfare, took and still takes a decisive role in logistics, you read following under “war machinery”.

Logistics in Germany

In Germany, in addition to military backgrounds (see war machinery), global trade was already being promoted around 1200. The international business network “the Hanseatic League” characterized a way of cooperation for transportation bundling and international maritime transport. For example, in order to make the crossing in the North Sea safer, to finally be able to permanently represent economic interests abroad, the city of Hamburg was founded in 1188 as the North Sea base of the Hanseatic League. At that time, the combined trade of the so-called “Hanse-Kogge” already extended from the Black Sea to Reval, today’s Tallinn, which is still known as a German-speaking area of commerce. So one could also claim that the Hanseatic people had an early concept of the European Union.

Logistics not only has a long tradition in Germany, but it is also one of the country’s largest economic sectors right after the automotive industry and retail. According to the German Logistics Association (BVL), logistics generated revenue of around 225 billion euros in 2012 with “2.85 million employees. This means that the logistics market in Germany grew by around three percent compared to 2011. For 2013, BVL expects the 2012 level to have been maintained.” A little amusing side fact: the first freight of the German railroad was two barrels of beer. They were delivered from Nuremberg to Fürth for a fee of just twelve kreuzers. On the other hand, it was important to note that the Directorial Commissioner, Dr. Löhner, was supposed to ensure “that this small beginning of freight transportation was carried out in proper order so that it could perhaps be expanded to a larger scale at a later date,” which was in fact done.

Mail, industrialization and the war machine

Another logistical challenge that endures to this day is met by the many letter carriers and parcel deliverers. What is expected of every delivery today has its origins around 1500. At that time, a unified, as well as progressive postal service, was created for the whole of Europe. Countries and duchies introduced the first postal service with precisely defined transit times. Unimaginable nowadays, but it could of course be delayed by a few days in the beginning.

Taylorism and Ford

In 1800, not only did things become more industrial, but logistics also moved onto new tracks. Thus, the invention of the steam engine as well as the discovery of petroleum enabled a new era in terms of economic efficiency. In 1878, the young engineer Frederick W. Taylor from the USA took a closer look at manufacturing processes, particularly with regard to economic efficiency: How can processes be organized even more effectively and how can expensive skilled workers be omitted in the process? The answer: Many actions must be implemented simply and as quickly as possible. “In the past, people came first; in the future, the system must come first,” Taylor defended his principle.

And none other than Ford took this on in 1908. Assembly line work, just introduced, was revolutionized. The car manufacturer was determined to build a car for the masses. So Ford limited itself to its Model T (Tin Lizzy), took into account the now world-famous Taylorism, and let the Model T roll off the assembly line for six years from then on. And because Ford limited himself to this model, he was able to rely on special machines for the individual work steps. The individual workpieces ran from one machine to the next via conveyor belts, from one operation to the next. The trick: the faster the individual worker worked, the more wages Ford paid him, and at the same time he was able to halve the price of the car from 1908 to 1914 – piecework was born.

But the railroads were not only reinvented, they were also enhanced with new technologies and thus given new roles as a means of transportation. Unfortunately, these opportunities were exploited for warfare. For example, during World War I, Germany was able to send tons of material (weapons and equipment) to its troops. Thus, the military played a major role in terms of logistical tasks even after the time of the aforementioned Byzantine emperor. They were also further refined during the Second World War. However, this then also benefited economic logistics, which began to adopt military logistics concepts during both world wars.

Supply Chain Management and Intralogistics

Ultimately, global logistics began in 1956. At that time, the US American Malcom P. McLean changed the production conditions of almost all industries worldwide and thus the consumption habits of people. Even today, the sea container is responsible for shipyards receiving major orders, new countries and regions booming, new markets emerging and products from all over the world being bought and sold cheaply everywhere. From then on, the history of logistics took its course. The Kanban and Just-In-Time concept from Toyota, which focused on the procurement of materials; QR and ECR technologies led to the efficient supply of goods; and, of course, the present: supply chain management – i.e., the consideration of the entire logistics chain from the supplier to the end consumer.

Introduction_to_logisticsThis interactive and complex system also includes the intralogisticswe are familiar with, i.e. the logistical flows of materials and goods that take place within a company’s premises. Yet the term is still quite young. It has only been an integral part of logistics since 2003. Accordingly, it has a short history; with a long tradition. DR. THOMAS + PARTNER played a major role in finding the definition of the term and was even in a leading position at the VDI in coining it. “Over the years, it has been recognized that logistics is much more multi-layered and branched out than was thought. The generic term was simply no longer sufficient,” says Frank Obschonka, sales manager and industrial engineer at DR. THOMAS + PARTNER. For better differentiation, the term intralogistics has been introduced. From then on, we were able to logistically represent and clearly name all of a company’s intralogistics processes.”

Generally speaking, the actual birth of intralogistics can be linked to the use of high-bay warehouses and goods distribution systems. Starting with the not really space-saving block warehouses, but where cranes were already used, to the further development of the actual driving performance, the use of height crystallized as the most effective component of intralogistics. In the 1980s, newly developed information technology then made the necessary degree of automation possible. As is well known, the latter has been continuously perfected by WMS systems and other control software. According to Frank Obschonka, even today the most decisive developments take place in IT. “And at that time, it was specifically the further developments in software controls and, of course, the PC introduction.”

Nowadays, environmental considerations are also increasingly being taken into account in the planning process. Intralogistics is also considered to be a sector with significant potential for energy savings. Energy efficiency is thus becoming another driving force in intralogistics under the heading of green logistics.

For more information, see ‘What can logistics do‘ and ‘The End of the 6 Rs of Logistics? – Part 1

Teaser image: © Giammarco Boscaro
Infographic: © GlobalGate GmbH – “The onboarding program for all logistics newcomers” (German).

Also available in Deutsch (German)