Physical Internet: How far have we come?

Dr. Benoit Montreuil, Professor at Georgia Tech, Coca-Cola Chair in Material Handling & Distribution, Director of the Physical Internet Center and of the Supply Chain & Logistics Institute

Dr. Benoit Montreuil, Professor at Georgia Tech, Coca-Cola Chair in Material Handling & Distribution, Director of the Physical Internet Center and of the Supply Chain & Logistics Institute

When Dr. Benoit Montreuil, Chair and Professor at Georgia Tech, Coca-Cola Material Handling & Distribution Center, Atlanta, GA, presented his paper “Towards a Physical Internet: Meeting the Global Logistics Sustainability Grand Challenge”, he described not only the current ways of moving, handling, storing, implementing, supplying and using physical objects across the planet as highly inefficient. But he also created a vision of an almost perfect and a lot more sustainable way of performing these tasks in the future. In our interview, Benoit Montreuil talks about the latest developments and important steps towards a Physical Internet.

Benoit Montreuil called these implications and requirements for the Physical Internet the “Global Logistics Sustainability Grand Challenge”. It involves thousands or even millions of people rethinking their entire processes and most of all their willingness to support open, collaborative, hyperconnected logistics. This might take some time as companies often block access because of fears over espionage or other consequences which might harm their business.

Compass: When you first published your paper, in which you not only described the “way how physical objects are currently moved, handled, stored, realized, supplied and used” as “not sustainable”, but also illustrated the weaknesses: What was the reaction? Where people, who were involved in these processes, offended or did they agree?

Benoit Montreuil: Whenever I was presenting these findings, I was always very cautious to affirm that in no way was I targeting people and organizations as incompetent or careless, but rather that the supply chain and logistics actors were indeed doing their best within the current system and dominant paradigm. So most got open minded to my talk and realized that each piece of the picture I was presenting was making sense on its own, and that they depicted a mosaic, indeed reflecting a profound degree of systemic worldwide inefficiency and unsustainability needing to be fixed. I will not claim that there were not some people that felt offended, yet these prove to be the exception.

Compass: What were the first concrete results in order to make your vision become reality, mostly in research projects?

Benoit Montreuil: As I kept my early creative works on the Physical Internet to myself between mid 2006 and early 2008, I gradually began to bounce some of the key concepts and ideas to a very limited group of colleagues in whom I had strong confidence that they would treat my work seriously and provide me with honest thoughtful feedback. When I was convinced that I had justified and defined the Physical Internet well enough for coming out public, I decided to bypass the lengthy scientific paper process at that stage, and to rather adopt an open innovation approach. So I put in place the www.physicalinternetinitiative.org website and began to put public a series of versions of the Physical Internet Manifesto. This allowed numerous people to get acquainted with the Physical Internet, and many provided me with feedback that fed the flow of versions. A major public outcoming was a TEDx talk I was invited to give in Bucharest in front of about a thousand people, the presentation was then widely viewed on the web.

Through the following years I have invested in making myself available to give a large number of keynote speeches across the world, both to academic and professional audiences. Beyond the early documents and talks, with colleagues from America and Europe (notably Professors Ballot, Meller and Glardon), we worked extensively in shaping and realizing research and innovation projects engaging industry and academia. These projects have been hugely instrumental in advancing the Physical Internet concepts and principles, providing rigorous assessments of its potential for improving by an order of magnitude the efficiency and sustainability of supply chains and logistics systems.

Compass: Seven years later: What have been the largest achievements so far?

Benoit Montreuil: The Physical Internet was initially perceived by many as a sound, creative, paradigm-breaking solution to the huge logistics and supply chain efficiency and sustainability challenges, its sheer scope lead many to perceive it as utopian. Today, this has changed, with a wide recognition that it is feasible, gradually implementable and scalable, and that it provides a sound blueprint for shaping the forthcoming future of moving, deploying, realizing, supplying, designing and using physical objects.

A remarkable achievement is due to the ALICE European Technology Platform for Logistics by making it the strategic goal for the European logistics roadmap toward 2030-2050. Focused on the Physical Internet, the PREDIT, CELDi, CIRRELT and Modulushca projects have made landmark contributions in further shaping the vision, assessing the PI potential, prototyping PI containers, and testing PI in pilots. The IPIC series of International Physical Internet Conferences, held in Quebec City, Paris, Atlanta and Graz, have created a superb momentum of creative interaction between bright minds from industry, government, technology and academia. Finally, yet most important in my mind, is the fact that businesses are picking up the Physical Internet concepts and go forward with smart hyperconnected logistics enabling innovations and business models, be they ventures such as Clear Destination, Convertible Concepts, CRC Services and Marlo, logistics clusters such as Bologna-Trieste, Euralogistics and Zaragoza, or world leaders such as Amazon, Daimler and Procter & Gamble.

Compass: How long do you think will it still take to shape and implement a Physical Internet globally? What should be the next steps?

Benoit Montreuil: The Physical Internet is already starting to emerge, yet it is in its early infancy. My expectation is that by 2030 it will be widely implemented across the world, adopted across numerous industries, with new breeds of hyperconnected logistics service providers and users. It will by then have been widely field-proven as a major enabler of logistics efficiency, sustainability and capability, notably helping to meet the huge omnichannel logistics challenges and to make a reality the promises of the shared economy and the circular economy. Regarding the next steps, they start by aiming for early success demonstration, grabbing the quick wins, while making sure they are stepping stones toward more mature implementations. Physical Internet container, handling, storage and transport solutions must be designed, engineered, implemented, exploited, and constantly improved.

The same goes for hyperconnected technological platforms. Logistics service providers must imagine, develop, market and realize offers and solutions ever further in line with the Physical Internet. Manufacturers, retailers and e-commerce players must grasp how the Physical Internet will enable them to focus on their competencies, to offer their client much more on-demand and responsive services, and to make their supply chains smarter, more agile, scalable and resilient, then act to test the required innovations and deploy them in large scale. Region leaders and infrastructure leaders have to reflect on how the Physical Internet can become a cornerstone of their strategic development in this new hyperconnected era where the Digital Internet, the Internet-of-Things, the Energy Internet and the Physical Internet will be key foundations for economic and societal prosperity.

Physical Internet in a nutshell:

Sending goods through open channels as easily as information via the internet – that is the vision of the Physical Internet. It applies the principle of exchange of standardized data packets to material flows in order to make transport logistics more efficient, flexible and environmentally friendly. But there is more to it: A universal interconnectivity with high-performance logistics centres, systems and movers; world standard protocols would be necessary and an open market of transport, storage and production requesters and providers. A shift from private supply networks towards hyperconnected networks which are embedded in even wider networks, all of them operating according to Physical Internet protocols and standards. Read more about the requirements in Dr. Benoit Montreuil’s enlightening paper about the vision of a Physical Internet.

This post is also available in: German