Home » Supply Chain » The Panama Canal Expansion and the Future of the Supply Chain, Part 1

The Panama Canal Expansion and the Future of the Supply Chain, Part 1

December 29, 2011


In yesterday’s post entitled Supply Chain 2012: What Lies Ahead, I looked at some predictions about what is going to take place in the supply chain sector made by Bob Ferrari as well as some trends being closely watched by Lora Cecere. In this two-part series, I’d like to discuss “the most important factors shaping the future of the supply chain” as identified by “six supply chain experts”: Alberto Aleman Zubieta, CEO, Panama Canal Authority; Greg Buza, director of supply chain operations, BASF Corp.; John Carver, executive vice president of port, airport and global infrastructure, Jones Lang LaSalle; Page Siplon, executive director, Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics; Donald Ratliff, executive director, Georgia Tech Supply Chain & Logistics Institute; and Rick Blasgen, president and CEO, CSCMP. [“Big Picture: Voices of the Supply Chain,” by Bob Trebilcock, Modern Materials Handling, 1 December 2011] You have to admit that Trebilcock assembled an excellent group of individuals from which to draw insights. The particular focus of the experts’ remarks is the expansion of the Panama Canal scheduled to be completed in 2012. Trebilcock believes the expanded canal will be a catalyst for change and he was interested in knowing how it “might impact what happens inside the four walls of manufacturing and distribution facilities.” He writes:

“Materials handling solutions may happen inside the four walls of a facility, but they are affected by what happens outside of a facility. To be truly efficient, a system needs visibility— those two windows—into what is happening downstream and upstream.”

His statement about the importance of visibility is true for whatever aspect of the supply chain you desire to discuss. Even before the expanded canal opens, it has already had some impact (see, for example, my post entitled Ports Vie for Increased Market Share). Trebilcock decided that the best expert to start the discussion was Alberto Aleman Zubieta, CEO of the Panama Canal Authority. He writes:

“When looking at the expansion of the Panama Canal, most logistics experts have focused on the impact bigger ships will have on supply chains centered in the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard. Aleman agrees with this assessment. ‘Some are calling this a game-changer for the maritime industry,’ Aleman says. However, Aleman believes the more important change could be in where and how companies with global supply chains locate and distribute their products. ‘Panama is becoming the most important distribution hub in the Americas, especially if you want access to the growing markets in Central and South America and the Caribbean,’ Aleman says. As proof, he points to a growing number of warehouses in the Colon Free Trade Zone on the Atlantic coast and Panama Pacifico and to the fact that Panama is the only country with connectivity to two oceans. As such, he argues that the country is uniquely positioned to be a value-added distribution platform for global companies. Aleman also envisions Panama becoming a hub for redistributing at the level of the ship load. ‘You can bring a full container into a distribution center, break it down and repack the product for a specific market before shipping it back out to a customer,’ he says. ‘Or, you can offload the containers from a large vessel onto several smaller vessels headed to different markets. At the end of the day, this is a value-added route and not just a passage way between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.'”

Aleman could be right if so-called “conveyor belt routes” are established by ocean carriers between Panama and other destinations. Maersk recently began running such a service, called Maersk Daily, between Asia and Europe. This kind of a system could provide enormous shipping flexibility for suppliers. Trebilcock’s next expert, Greg Buza, director of supply chain operations, BASF Corp., seems to agree that the expanded canal will provide more flexibility, even if Panama is just passage between oceans.

“The expansion of the Panama Canal is one of the catalysts that has BASF kicking off the first comprehensive review of its North American distribution network supply chain since 2004. ‘The most important driver of our warehousing and transportation operations is the balancing of service and cost,’ says Buza. ‘We ask: How close are we to our customers, how quickly can we get product to our customers and what is the cost of getting those materials to our customers?’ An expanded canal may create opportunities to reduce supply chain costs by relocating facilities now operating on the West Coast to the East Coast or the Gulf region. ‘We are especially looking at Houston and New Orleans to expand our shipments to Asia,’ says Buza. ‘Freight for Asia is typically railed to the West Coast. If we can save money by bringing vessels into the Gulf through the canal, that could change how we crossdock and store materials.’ While the expansion is first and foremost a network design puzzle for Buza, he says BASF is rethinking its order fulfillment processes. ‘We are looking at automating more of our warehousing and standardizing our processes across our network to lower our costs,’ says Buza. In North America, for instance, Buza is focusing on integrating supply chain management systems for greater visibility and efficiency. Globally, the company has built highly automated distribution centers in Asia and South America. ‘We’re taking what we’ve learned and looking to add automated handling and storage in North America in the future,’ he says.”

Automated handling and storage permits companies to leverage management-by-exception. If routine matters are handled automatically, decision makers can spend more of their valuable time dealing with potential at-risk shipments, emerging delays, and so forth. The sooner problems can be identified, the more time a decision maker has to mitigate the outcome. Those are issues that my company, Enterra Solutions, is helping clients address by giving them more visibility into their supply chains. Trebilcock next interviewed John Carver, executive vice president of port, airport and global infrastructure, Jones Lang LaSalle.

“The expanded canal will result in new supply chain opportunities, new areas of efficiencies and new strategies for transportation and distribution. ‘There is an imaginary line where things destined for the East Coast come in east of the line and everything else comes in through Long Beach,’ says Carver. ‘Right now, that line is somewhere around Memphis. We believe it’s going to shift to Dallas. That’s going to result in new distribution strategies.’ That doesn’t mean that every product destined for the eastern half of the country will automatically be diverted away from Long Beach. Carver believes that products with a shelf life, including everything from food to trend-sensitive fashions and fast-moving consumer electronics, will still enter through the West Coast. Raw materials and basic products with a longer shelf life will find the most economical way to reach their final destination. ‘That is likely to be the East Coast because of the canal,’ says Carver. Wherever that cargo lands, Carver is predicting more warehouse space because of slow steaming, slowing a vessel down from 25 knots to 18 knots to save fuel. ‘Talk to carrier lines, and they’ll tell you that trend is here to stay,’ Carver says. ‘That suggests more inventory and more warehouse space.’ Anyone who has watched the development of warehouse and distribution space around the ports in Long Beach, Oakland or Savannah understands that the expansion of the canal will affect more than just the cost of shipping a container. It will also affect the industrial real estate sector and supply chain logistics. ‘The amount of growth and investment within the broader logistics universe will be exponential, impacting everything from shipping and rail line construction to warehousing and terminal development around the world,’ predicts Carver. He adds that there are already discussions underway between major shippers and logistics providers about new facilities even if the expansion is several years off. ‘Logistics providers realize that shippers drive business to their ports and warehouses,’ Carver says. ‘They’re going after the Wal-marts, Home Depots and Ikeas of the world to address their needs.'”

Carver raises an important point when he talks about how entire distribution systems are going to be impacted by revised shipping routes and practices. The trucking and rail industries are also going to have to adapt to some new realities once the expanded canal opens. Carver’s remarks lead me to believe that supply chains will become even more complex which will increase the need for technologies that can help deal with that complexity. Trebilcock next interviewed Page Siplon, executive director, Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics.

“‘There’s no question. The expansion of the canal is going to change the importance of logistics in the United States,’ says Siplon. ‘Volume growth is going to dictate that companies look at where they put their four walls and how they operate to handle that increased volume.’ Siplon believes five factors will drive the development of distribution centers in the coming years.

Site selection: ‘Proximity to customers remains a key basic of site selection,’ says Siplon. ‘But they’re also asking questions like whether there is the right kind of infrastructure and whether there will be enough truck drivers in a radius to serve their customers.’

In-house or outsource: Siplon is intrigued by one distribution stat in particular: 51% of companies with more than $2.5 billion in sales have more than 10 distribution centers in their network. Those networks will have to expand to accommodate increased growth and volume. ‘The one commonality I hear when I talk to end users is whether they should outsource some of their network to a 3PL,’ Siplon says. ‘They want the flexibility to scale up or down, they want to reduce their costs and they want to mitigate their risks. With a 3PL model, the headaches become someone else’s headache.’ Small manufacturers and distributors are especially attracted to the 3PL model as they look to expand internationally, according to Siplon.

Add value: Importers and exporters are increasingly looking at their distribution centers as value-added centers, places to configure a product before it is shipped to its next destination. ‘It’s expensive for cargo to stop,’ says Siplon. ‘If it must stop in a warehouse, why not use that pause in the supply chain to do something that adds value.’ Since value-added services change over time ‘that fits perfectly the flexibility you get in a 3PL model,’ Siplon says.

Add technology: Materials handling automation is still the exception for most of the DCs in and around Savannah, but that is changing. ‘We’re talking to companies that want to double their throughput in Savannah,’ Siplon says. ‘We’re also talking to companies that are trying to get new customers in industries like pharma and food that have very specific inventory management requirements. Companies that want to play in that game need technology to scale and compete.’

Labor matters: Yes, we have 9% unemployment. But distribution operations continue to struggle to recruit, train and retain qualified labor. ‘In Georgia, we have about 100 different logistics offerings in our high schools, community colleges and universities,’ says Siplon. ‘When we sit down with businesses and ask them what they need, the first thing they says is: How do you train a good work ethic.’ As the volumes of freight being stored, processed and moves increases, that is going to become more of an issue nationally. And, it may drive the adoption of automation and technology. ‘If we’re going to get manufacturing back to the U.S., we have to figure out how to make the workforce compete,’ Siplon says.”

­Siplon makes some important points. I was particularly interested in what he said about “industries like pharma and food that have very specific inventory management requirements.” As product tracking becomes more important in those sectors, Siplon is correct that “to play in that game [companies] need technology to scale and compete.” Enterra is looking into how its basic Sense, Think/Learn, Act system can be used in this area. Trebilcock next interviewed Donald Ratliff, executive director, Georgia Tech Supply Chain & Logistics Institute.

“How will the expansion of the canal impact global trade? Ratliff says the answer is not a simple one. He poses three key questions that need to be answered:

“Will bigger ships be cheaper to operate? While Ratliff has seen estimates that larger ships could save anywhere from 10% to 40% per container, he asks whether the ships will be operationally cheaper once a shipper factors in the investment in these big new ships.

“Will shipping lines pass on the savings? ‘Right now, shipping companies are in a world of hurt,’ Ratliff contends. ‘They have additional capacity and they’re slowing their ships down to save fuel. If you’re currently losing money and can’t currently fill up your smaller ships, will you be able to fill up the bigger ships? And, if you do, will you pass on those operational savings to your customers?’ Ratliff believes the jury is still out.

“What will be the impact on service levels of bigger ships? Will carriers continue to send one ship a week once they go to bigger ships? Or will they make fewer deliveries? And, if it now takes one day to unload a smaller ship, will it take three or four days for a bigger ship? If either of those events occur, shippers will need to carry more inventory to offset the longer delivery times.

Bottom line: ‘There is a lot of uncertainty in my mind about the canal.’ What is certain, he says, is that the expansion is forcing major manufacturers and distributors to take a hard look at their international supply chains. ‘Ultimately, that’s going to result in more efficient supply chains, and that’s a good thing,’ Ratliff says.”

In some ways, the timing of the opening of the expanded Panama Canal is unfortunate. As Ratliff points out, the shipping industry is “in a world of hurt” and the new post-Panamax ships will only add to the overcapacity from which the shipping industry now suffers. To learn more about the current state of the shipping industry, read post entitled Update on the Shipping Industry.


Trebilcock’s final interviewee was Rick Blasgen, president and CEO of CSCMP. Blasgen raised so many interesting topics, that I’ve decided to discuss his comments separately in part 2 of this series.

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