It has been an incredible journey over these last 20 years working on Automotive Logistics, expanding both our publications and our conferences around the world.
I can still remember the beginning like it was yesterday. I was young and full of energy, fresh from school with hair flowing down to my shoulders. England’s national football team had never looked better and would surely win the World Cup in 1998. At my job for a general automotive purchasing and supply magazine, Automotive Sourcing, all anyone in the sector was talking about was the dynamism and importance of logistics, and how working in the sector was certain to be the straight road to the top of large carmaker organisations. I could see that the time was right to launch a publication dedicated to this space.
Okay, so maybe time has a way of rose-tinting memories – and adding a few extra strands of hair.
In truth, the initial reactions to a magazine about this sector weren’t very positive. My research began with a call to a senior logistics executive at a carmaker whom I told about my idea for a dedicated automotive logistics publication. I asked him what he thought was interesting and new in the industry.
His reply? “It’s the same old shit.”
My bosses at Automotive Sourcing were not overly enthusiastic either, and they tried to dissuade me from taking the idea much further.
Not one to listen to sense so quickly, I made more calls. Among them was one to a gentleman named Steve Harley, who had started working as a line worker at Ford Motor Company’s Dagenham plant near London in the early 1970s. While there, he’d obtained degrees in transport and logistics and worked his way up the company’s management. From his point of view, emerging markets, new sourcing and manufacturing locations, and more vehicle personalisation were all pointing towards a great rise in logistics complexity. He encouraged me to do a magazine about it. (About a decade later, he would go on to lead Ford’s global logistics.)
Those trends were all interesting, but it was actually the simplicity of automotive logistics that attracted me at first. As I researched the sector, I thought to myself: “I get this – it is just about moving stuff around.” I figured it would be easy to learn, understand and articulate.
Twenty years later, I am still not sure if I was right or terribly wrong. When I hear debates about the benefits of API over EDI, about algorithm-based transport management or predictive analytics, I realise that I have never known less about automotive logistics than I do now.
But that is a sign of how much the industry has changed. Much as many of you might sometimes sympathise with what the first executive told me about it back then, automotive logistics really isn’t the ‘same old shit’ – at least not any more.
It took time to get here, though. For the first issue of the magazine, when I requested interviews with the heads of logistics at GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Volkswagen, I was asked by their PR teams: “Why do you want to interview people from logistics?”
While I still feel that many automotive companies undervalue logistics, it is certainly held in much higher esteem than it was in 1997. We have gone from transport to logistics to supply chain to demand chain; from the physical to the digital; from a career path many considered to have few prospects to one in which rigorous technical, data and intellectual skills are a basic requirement.
The shape of the industry keeps changing, too. When we started, Europe, the US and Japan were still the dominant markets. Then came the rise of the BRIC countries in the 2000s. China sold around 1m vehicles in 1997; today the number is around 28m. And then, more recently, economic troubles in emerging markets and recovery in Europe and North America have changed many of the dynamics again. Logistics managers have to keep up with all of it.
Logistics will keep you aheadToday, with billions of dollars in investment in technology, including start-ups from Silicon Valley and Israel making their way into the supply chain, who knows what will come next? Many are racing towards electric vehicles and autonomous driving. The supply chain is moving towards blockchain.
I don’t pretend to understand all of this, but I’m confident of at least one thing: logistics will remain the heartbeat of the automotive industry.
How will the industry continue to globalise? How will it compete in the new world of e-commerce? How can OEMs improve customer experiences? How will carmakers stay ahead of tech companies in manufacturing vehicles? How can the industry ensure the supply of the best parts and technology from the best suppliers, wherever they are?
An important answer to all of these questions is to have fast and reliable logistics. Companies like Amazon and Alibaba understand this fact very well. I’m not always sure automotive companies do, but that is why Automotive Logistics exists.
I am very proud to have been a part of the global automotive logistics industry for the last 20 years, but I’m sure the most exciting years are yet to come.