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Community Post Stations, Robot Sailboats, and the Future of Product Delivery
Sarah Kuck, 21 Jul 09

shippingcontainers.jpg

Today's delivery system is sub par, at best. Each link in the system uses more energy and resources than it should and results in a oversupply of cheap goods that, in the end, only benefits a few. Products are shipped, flown, trucked, picked up and driven home, requiring seemingly endless amounts of fossil fuel. But innovators everywhere are working to create a more efficient and effective delivery model, and are succeeding in changing the system at lots of points along the supply chain.

Some of the biggest inefficiencies come from transporting goods long distances. Studies show that carbon dioxide emissions from shipping are double those of aviation. New innovations are popping up to combat this and to make long-distance freight delivery carbon neutral. Sail-powered shipping, for example, could drastically change an industry that relies on huge amounts of diesel fuel. Another idea that inventors are tinkering with is the robotic sailing vessel. One day, ships like the Roboat could replace diesel-run ships, greatly reducing air and water pollution.

City%20Cargo.jpg For ground shipping, a delivery method showing lots of potential is renewable energy powered light rail. Using light rail trains to deliver goods could dramatically change our transportation system for products and people. One promising, but defunct concept for inner city delivery was Amsterdam's CityCargo. The company planned to use existing rail systems (when not full of people) to carry cargo from distribution centers on the city fringe to urban hubs, where their fleet of electric vehicles would transport cargo a short distance to its final destination. The company estimated that this system would have cut the number of freight trucks in the city by half, reducing pollution and congestion and making the streets safer.

Some innovations for shipping products from maker to retailer, retailer to buyer, have become increasingly popular in the last few years. Take video rental company Netflix, for a familiar example. This home product delivery system saves time and money, and reduces the number of times people get into their cars to drive back and forth from the store.

Home delivery has become quite popular, and if you live in a dense enough neighborhood, you can get just about anything delivered. But even that system can be tweaked to be more efficient. One small change some clothing retailers are exploring is moving online shopping from your living room back to the street. To limit the amount of clothing they need to have in stock, retailers are investing in Webfronts. Shoppers test and try on clothes in the store, but when they're ready to check out they order their purchases online at an automated kiosk, usually for a discount. Then the goods are delivered from a central warehouse directly to the shopper's home. One retailer that tried this model is innovative clothing store Nau. Although they have moved mostly online, they were the first to experiment with this store/webfront idea. This model is still developing, and appears like it would work best in dense neighborhoods where you could walk to the storefront, thus truly eliminating the many drives between home and store.

pack-station-receipt.jpgHome delivery can be inefficient, however, if the delivery company has to make multiple trips to deliver your package. One solution to this is Deutsche Post's Packstation, a personal product delivery system. We've described them before as "neighborhood parcel ATMs": they hold packages which couldn't be delivered to you directly, and you claim them with a swipe card and a PIN. These centrally located stations work best in dense urban neighborhoods, where you can use foot power to get to your station. There are still some kinks that need to be worked out, but from what we hear, most people love their Packstation.

These examples are important pieces of evidence that show how the shift is happening. Some are small ideas that fill a niche right now, while others shine light onto what our system could look like in the future. To create a delivery system that is efficient, just and clean, we'll need to build off ideas like these to entirely change our current delivery model. And we'll also need to create our own ideas of how we want the system to function. Here's one scenario I came up with of how things might look in the future:

After browsing the web, you find a local hemp farm that has a Community Supported Fiber program. You invest, and soon the amount and color of fabric you ordered is waiting for you in your centrally located mailbox. You excitedly charge up your recently rented fabrication machine and enter the design code you purchased off of a collaborative, community design site (like Etsy). After about an hour, you have a locally grown outfit to wear to dinner.

This is a fictional story but the components are real: Community Supported Fiber programs exist, as do fabber machines (although only in their earliest stages). And product service systems, that let you communally rent instead of own, are already in use.

As people gain more control over how they create, use and receive materials and goods, emerging methods of sustainable, efficient delivery will hopefully become widespread enough to link all these new systems together seamlessly.

How would you like to receive/find/create products in the future? Please share your own ideas in the comments.

Image credit: Shipping Containers: JAXPORT, CC License

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Comments

See this great video for more on micro-fabrication.


Posted by: Sarah on 22 Jul 09

I agree we need a better solution for the way we transport our goods. Having 15 different transits, I don't see how anyone could profit off all that. Gas prices are ridiculous, but sail energy would be timely. Then again, with trickle down affect, you may see more affordable health insurance, cheaper food, drinks, even baby products.


Posted by: Trevor on 1 Nov 10

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