Six of the Best

The 99% Invisible podcast isn’t about the supply chain; it’s about design, in all its many forms… but it’s surprising how often something relevant to my interests crops up. (And even when it’s not related to the day job, this series of podcasts is a delight to listen to.) Here’s a shortlist of some particularly good 99% Invisible podcasts that contain something of interest to a person studying supply chain management… although I’d recommend popping over to iTunes and getting every episode. It’s a great bit of intelligent listening, guaranteed to make your commute seem a little less onerous!

Episode 55: The Best Beer in the World – a bold claim, and worth investigating at any time… but this episode is interesting because the brewer doesn’t seem to obey the law of supply and demand as we know it, and operates a curious kind of anti-marketing.

Episode 124: Longbox – packaging is always a supply chain topic worthy of investigation, I find… but the packaging for REM’s 1991 album ‘Out of Time’ may actually have changed the political landscape of the USA forever. Strange but true. Also, the episode provides an interesting picture of music retail in transition, from LPs to compact disc.

REM Out of Time - longbox

Do you remember when CDs had an extra layer of packaging; the ‘Longbox’?

Episode 64: Derelict Dome – providing an introduction to the work of R. Buckminster Fuller, an early advocate of sustainability. It’s not just about his fascination with geodesic domes, but his motivations.

Episode 30: The Blue Yarn – explaining how the Toyota Production System came to be employed not in manufacturing, but in the redesign of a hospital management system. A piece of yarn was used to map the path that a cancer patient would take on a typical visit for treatment, with surprising results.

Episode 70: The Great Red Car Conspiracy – because everyone likes a good conspiracy story, don’t they? Whatever happened to the Red Car, Los Angeles’ mass transit system that once had 1,100 miles of track? Well, it turns out there was a conspiracy… just not the one you’ve probably heard about.

Pacific Electric ‘Red Cars’ in the scrapyard

Who scrapped the Red Car, and why?

Episode 108: Barcodes – narrowly edging out the episode on Cow Tunnels, which was also good, but I felt I ought to acknowledge one of my sources. When I decided to start this blog to commemorate the 40th birthday of the barcode, much of what I knew about them (barcodes, that is, not cows) had come from listening to this podcast.

Happy listening.

Piles of pallets

The Pallet, Reloaded

There was a time when if you said “pallet” everybody would have assumed you meant a particularly spartan or makeshift bed. (For example, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II: “Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs, upon uneasy pallets stretching thee…”) Still, in the modern era a pallet is, of course, a portable platform used for storing or moving cargo.

If you cast your mind back to the often regrettable fashions of the 1980s, you might remember when futons were all the rage. A futon is also a somewhat makeshift bed.


Mmm… that looks comfy.

IKEA don’t sell their famous GRANKULLA sofa/futon anymore, and perhaps that’s a good thing because it really looked like furniture that had been made from a couple of old pallets… but these aren’t the only pallets that IKEA aren’t shifting anymore.

When you’re in the business of selling furniture, it makes sense to pack things flat. With home assembly, a lot more product can be fitted into a shipping container… and when your product is supplied in a slim, flat box, you start looking very hard at the wasted space occupied by a pallet. A standard EPAL pallet is 144mm high (-0/+2 mm) for example. If you stack two pallet-loads to fill a container, that’s nearly a foot of vertical space expended upon nothing useful… and if you can reduce that, you might be able to squeak in an extra layer or two of product, meaning more goods to sell, and greater profitability.

IKEA turned away from conventional pallets, in favour of their own solution, which they called ‘Loading Ledges’. (If you can persuade a Swede to talk about loading ledges, do so: the pronunciation is cute.) They’re basically polypropylene ‘feet’ that do the same job as a pallet: raising the goods such that the tines of a forklift can get underneath, but taking up a lot less space (the low profile ones are almost impossibly svelte at just 45mm high) and they weigh less. A further space saving comes from the loading ledges being strapped to the lower edges of the shipment whatever size that shipment happens to be: the pallet substitute takes the shape of the product, rather than requiring manufacturers to contrive loads that more-or-less fit the shape of a standard pallet. This elimination of ‘underhang’ can lead to additional improvements in space utilisation within a container or a vehicle.

IKEA Loading Ledges

Loading Ledges. At Sustainability Live there was talk of each moulding including a clever snap-out strap tensioning device, ready for immediate use.

Before IKEA developed the loading ledges, and also adopted a paper pallet system for some products, almost half of the company’s consumption of spruce and pine was for the construction of pallets, which is astonishing if you consider them to be primarily a furniture company. Just a few years ago, virtually everybody was shipping tonnes of wood around the world (most of the half a billion pallets made each year are wooden) and then scratching their heads about how to get them back again. Pallets are that rarest of things: a product that improves with age. As the wood becomes seasoned, it becomes more resilient, so used pallets actually have greater utility than brand new ones – if only they weren’t on the wrong side of the world!

IKEA’s polypropylene loading ledges, being much less bulky and weighing only a fraction of the pallets they replace, are cheaper to backhaul. They don’t improve with age like wooden pallets, but they are more durable – and they don’t have to be treated periodically to deal with insect pests, as wooden pallets do. There’s even an IKEA product that’s designed to be made from recycled loading ledges; the LADIS storage box. How’s that for joined-up thinking?

But why stop there? Just because you’re in the furniture business, that doesn’t mean you have to stay only in the furniture business. IKEA formed the OptiLedge company to market their solution worldwide. If you’re in the business of shipping things that are rigid and more-or-less cuboid, it’s worth a closer look.



Hummer vs. Prius: surprisingly sustainable?

Back in 1970, Kermit the Frog sang “it’s not easy bein’ green,” and that doesn’t seem to have changed. Consider the Toyota Prius: a hybrid electric car beloved of Hollywood celebrities as well as ordinary families. A fuel-efficient car must be the ‘green’ choice… right?

Toyota Prius

The celebrity connection: Cameron Diaz, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts… even Brian, the dog on Family Guy has a Prius.

Nobody disputes that the Prius has been a commercial success, and it delivers reasonably good mileage for city dwellers… but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s good for the planet.

A key component of the Prius hybrid is the large battery pack that lurks behind the back seat; in most models it’s a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) type, featuring nickel mined in Ontario, Canada, shipped to Wales for refining, and undergoing manufacturing operations in China and Japan. When the car is brand new, the battery pack has already travelled something like ten thousand miles, critics say. Perhaps the most damaging critics have been CNW Marketing Research, the Oregon-based consultancy whose report investigated environmental impact through the measurement of energy usage per mile travelled. That isn’t just the energy paid for at the petrol pump, but the whole life cycle; materials extraction, manufacturing, driving, and end-of-life recycling or safe disposal. CNW came to the shocking conclusion that the emerging hybrid cars were actually using more energy per mile than the Hummer H2 or H3.

Hummer... the ‘green’ choice?

Hummer… the ‘green’ choice?

There are a number of factors that need to be understood here, including the relatively limited usage commonly made of hybrids (CNW found that they tend to be the second vehicle in the household) and their shorter life expectancy. The inevitable deterioration of the expensive battery pack leads in some cases to premature scrapping, or to the vehicle ceasing to be used as a hybrid. Meanwhile, the far sturdier gas-guzzling SUVs such as the Hummer soldier on for decades. Materials are also an issue: the exotic steels found in modern cars are more energy-intensive than those found in the low-tech Hummer, in both the manufacturing and reclamation stages – and the recycling of NiMH batteries is complicated, while it’s a problem that has long been solved for lead-acid batteries.

So was a Hummer ‘greener’ than a Prius? (I say ‘was’ because General Motors closed the division making the Hummer in May 2010, a victim of the economic downturn of 2008.) Well… yes and no: a grudging “yes” when considered purely in terms of lifetime energy efficiency (the metric that CNW used), and a resounding “Hell, no!” if you consider real issues that affect real people. Sustainability should be about communities as well as energy: people who have to share crowded roads and limited parking space with cars that are technically light trucks. People concerned about local air quality, safety in a collision, and so on: there are many grounds on which to consider a very large vehicle to be antisocial. (I wrote about this, among other things, in a paper for ICRM2010.)

In the Oscar Wilde sense, perhaps being talked about has done CNW a lot of good, even if their findings are often criticised by outraged ‘pale greens’ (many of whom own a hybrid car). Despite the controversy it’s useful because it gets people talking and thinking about sustainability, and the complex mix of issues that affect decision-making. Remember Futerra’s ten signs of greenwash? Number two is “clean products vs. dirty company”, and the Prius shows an interesting extension of that: a clean product from a company that are doing their best (Toyota’s action on waste is actually pretty good…) but the overall supply chain is letting them down badly, due in part to sheer distance covered.

Meanwhile, the best answer for increased sustainability in motoring is probably that people should extend the life of their current vehicle for longer, regardless of make and model. Of course, this is very seldom heard. Continuing to own a used car is not a ‘glamorous’ solution, it doesn’t keep motoring journalists, salesmen or automotive engineers in work and it doesn’t fill advertising space.

Maybe it’s not easy bein’ green… but it’s even harder sellin’ green.


A Stovetop Bioplastic Experiment

A little while ago I wrote that you could make bioplastic, and that it was simple to do so. There are plenty of websites that tell you this, and countless chirpy teenagers demonstrating various techniques on YouTube… but I decided I’d better put the whole thing to the test.

For my first experimental bioplastic , I tried polylactic acid (PLA) – simply because I had some milk left over and it wasn’t going to last much longer. I used a recipe provided by the folks at the Smithsonian, which appealed to me because of its simplicity. Later, I’d try some things that required me to buy ingredients, but for this one all I needed was milk and a little vinegar.

Selecting an old saucepan (just in case something horrible was produced – it wasn’t) I warmed up the milk to the point where velvety bubbles were just beginning to appear. Meanwhile, I mixed in some food colouring, to make things more interesting. Then I added vinegar, in a ratio of one tablespoon of vinegar to one cup of milk. (Why do American recipes always use the ‘cup’ as a unit of measure? Which cup? They’re all different sizes…)

Pan of milk, vinegar and food colouring.

Bioplatic. It’s what’s for dinner.

I kept on stirring, and pretty soon the mixture polymerised… which is a nice way to say that it curdled, just as if I had added lemon juice to cream when cooking. The result was a vile-looking mixture of thin, clear liquid and small rubbery chunks with the consistency of cottage cheese. The chunks were what I was after.

I poured the whole lot through a sieve, to retain the chunks. Some of the smaller chunks slipped through and I had a momentary panic that I was pouring plastic down the drain, where it might clog… then I remembered that this is bioplastic, so it can be depended upon to rot away quite quickly. Score one point for home-made bioplastic!


I would estimate that I got about 10% chunks, 90% waste liquid.

I scooped the chunks out of the sieve and dabbed at the mixture with kitchen roll to remove excess liquid. Then I thought, what on Earth am I going to do with this bioplastic anyway? A quick search of the kitchen revealed an ice cube tray (a promotional freebie that makes ice cubes in the shape of VW Polos) so I decided to make some bioplastic Polos. I spooned the chunks into the cavities and pressed it down as best I could: the process was nothing like any plastic moulding I’ve done before, and that was a disappointment: I’d read that bioplastics could be substituted for oil-based plastics in existing processes. Not this one… or at least, not with this recipe.

Ice cube tray

Who knew you could make VW Polos from bioplastic?

One of my concerns was that this experiment would smell really bad. I don’t like milk very much at the best of times, and heating it and then leaving it around the house for several days really didn’t seem like a good idea. I’m pleased to report, however, that the only smell coming from the experiment after two days was a faint smell of vinegar.

Now, something that has surprised me in many of the bioplastic recipes I’ve read is a requirement to let them dry. They set over time, it seems. That’s another disappointment, because it reduces their utility a little… but perhaps I could make some bioplastic, let it ‘dry’ and then soften it with heat and mould it like a regular thermoplastic? Well… we shall see. I suppose that’s my end goal in these experiments: to identify an easily-made, biodegradable plastic that can be substituted directly for something like polystyrene, or PET. Imagine the benefit if an existing waste material such as food industry byproducts could be used to make packaging, reducing dependency upon oil imports and simply turning back into soil at the end of life!

The ‘milk plastic’ exhibited a tremendous amount of shrinkage as it dried. The ‘ice cube’ VW Polos became a lot narrower (around 25%) as they dried. Clearly, there was a lot of liquid left in the mixture, and it all had to evaporate away. This is a problem because working with PLA in this way seems to be a race against time: will the plastic set before it biodegrades? Again, I don’t really want rotting milk products around the house.

Mould shrinkage

Nasty shrinkage – at least 25% – during drying.

The ice cube tray proved to be a poor choice of mould, as it inhibited drying. After two days, I tried to dig the first Polo out of the tray, and found that it was still gooey inside. A better result came from some surplus bioplastic that I had left on a porous surface; it dried much more thoroughly, and shows no sign of decomposing. Best of all, once dry, it had no smell.

Dried bioplastic

To quote Lord Percy Percy: “A nugget of purest green!”

The strength of the material was nothing spectacular: I would estimate it was about as strong as a wax crayon: not much use for an industrial application, then. You might manage to make plant pots out of the stuff (so that seedlings can be put in the ground without removing them from the pot) but you can do that with fibrous pots made from pressed peat anyway. Another issue with this bioplastic recipe is that it isn’t really ‘green’ enough – milk is produced by farming, which may not use sustainable methods. Also, it involves using a food in a non-food application, which isn’t really ethical while not everybody has enough.

All in all, ‘milk plastic’ was a disappointment, although a useful learning experience. It took time, effort and energy to produce something that had only limited practical application. Meanwhile, the milk bottle that I washed out and put in the recycling consisted of 37 grams of virgin HDPE (an oil-based plastic) that I expect will be burnt for energy recovery. I would have come closer to my goal by grinding up the milk bottle into granules, and using that in a moulding process (exactly as some 3D printing enthusiasts are now doing). The HDPE is easier to work with, stronger, chemically more stable, and simply better at virtually everything except rotting. What a waste!

The Case of the Disappearing Product

Everywhere you look, manufactured products are disappearing into the aether. This isn’t the plot of a steampunk Sherlock Holmes story, nor a complaint about ‘vapourware’… it’s the phenomenon of dematerialization. Many things now have less of a physical presence than they used to, or none at all. Will you soon be supplying nuts-and-bolts products in a world where your rivals are putting out nothing but pixels?

Star Trek transporter

Dematerialization: nothing to do with ‘Star Trek’

Consider the pocket calculator: the picture below is an advertisement for one, from September 1963. It’s not what we think of as a calculator as it’s all-mechanical. It features eight ounces of precisely manufactured gears and other parts, with a handle that you crank to perform mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication or division… and until the arrival of the electronic calculator in the 1970s, these were the best calculators that money (quite a lot of money) could buy.

Curta calculator advertisement

The Curta Calculator, as advertised in 1963

The Curta ceased to be made in the early 1970s, when advances in integrated circuits meant that a mechanical calculator simply couldn’t compete. Solid state electronics offered a calculator with no moving parts, and prices tumbled – by as much as 20% every six months. It’s laughable to think of carefully cutting a mass of intricate metal parts, painting numbers on them and assembling them to produce a heavy calculator that remains somewhat difficult to use, after electronics offered a smaller, lighter, and cheaper solution: the product dematerialized.

Dematerialization is good; it’s proof that we continue to work towards the challenge set by R. Buckminster Fuller: “…to do so much with so little as forever to be able to sustain and physically satisfy all humanity.” (Who doesn’t have access to a calculator, nowadays? Not many people.) It’s good sense for other products to dematerialize, too: if a car can be made lighter, various benefits are likely to be enjoyed, such as better acceleration and fuel economy.

Back in 1969, the Welsh psychedelic/prog rock band Man released their second album, cheekily titled ‘2 ozs of Plastic with a Hole in the Middle.’ It sounds almost as ruthlessly honest as Ronseal’s famous advertising slogan, “it does exactly what it says on the tin”, but there were a number of things that even the most futuristic band could not have foreseen in 1969: not just the adoption of the metric system (two ounces of plastic is a little over 57 grams…) but the arrival of the compact disc, in 1982. The same album is available on CD now (of course) but you only get around fifteen grams of polycarbonate. With a hole in the middle. Another option (post 1995 and the widespread adoption of the MP3 file format) is a music download, for music that weighs nothing at all. Immune to irony, the music industry sells the album that way, too.

Music has gone virtual; it’s transcended the physical plane to exist as (almost) nothing but information – and you could say that the pocket calculator has done the same. A lot of people make do with using their mobile ’phone as a calculator, now (unless they need a proper one because they’re sitting exams). And whatever happened to the Sony Walkman, or the handheld games console? All but gone; the modern mobile meets those needs, too. Some people don’t own a camera because they consider the one on their ’phone to be good enough, and some get along fine without a wristwatch too – although it will be interesting to see if the long-anticipated ‘smart’ watches that link to the mobile reverse that trend.

Remember the telephone answering machine? Motoring maps? Two more things that have dematerialized, edged out by voicemail and ‘sat-nav’, respectively. We get the same benefit, nowadays, but we don’t own a physical product. Another significant contribution to dematerialization that has accompanied the mobile ’phone is the reduction in fixed infrastructure: the use of radio spectrum instead of expensive physical connections has allowed telephone networks to grow very rapidly, and to do so in areas where, historically, telephone companies were plagued by the theft of copper wires: wireless communications aren’t just convenient for the customer, but for the network as well.

In so many cases, things that were once done with complicated mechanical products are now done with solid-state electronics, or purely in software, often on the ubiquitous mobile ’phone. Of course, that phone is a product in its own right, and one that few people owned a generation ago, so it’s a product that has gone the other way: a conceptual product that has become a reality. The resources expended upon a typical mobile ’phone, the short useful life and the very low recycling rate are still causes for concern (a news item this week suggests that scavenging gold from old mobile ’phones is more rewarding than digging up the richest ores) but before we condemn them as wasteful, we need to remember all the other things that they have caused to dematerialize.

Smallest phone

You know, we might be taking dematerialisation too far, now… (sWap Nova ’phone, 2011)

Meet the Monstrous Hybrid

In their book, ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’, William McDonough and Michael Braungart set out a manifesto of product design principles for a sustainable society, centred upon manufacturing of suitably designed products. Their vision is a long, long way off, but there are some things that can be done within supply chains right now, not out of altruism but for our own benefit: to reduce waste disposal charges, and to ensure that material supplies last longer… which means that they are likely to cost us less.

A key concept introduced by Braungart and McDonough is that of the monstrous hybrid; a product that is an unholy combination of technical and organic ‘nutrients’. Technical nutrients can be recovered by established processes such as dismantling or melting down, whereas organic nutrients are materials that form part of the organic cycle: they grow, are harvested and refined, put to use, and then they rot away when they are disposed of, becoming compost that supports the growth of new organic products.

Organic and technical nutrients

It’s like the circle of life… only without the Lion King

The trouble comes when a product is a mixture of technical and organic materials. Consider a blister pack, commonly used in the retail of small items: it features a cardboard backing, and a vacuum-formed plastic bubble that displays the product. As soon as you open up the packaging, it becomes waste, and you throw it away… but how? Is it cardboard, or plastic? Even if you try to do the right thing and separate the two pieces so they can be disposed of in different categories, there’s going to be some cardboard and glue stuck on the remains of the plastic bubble. This is one reason why a manufacturer can’t simply melt down the plastic and mould it into something else; in fact it’s far more likely that the plastic will simply become refuse-derived fuel (RDF).

Blister pack

Blister pack, featuring a mixture of cardboard and thermoplastic

Braungart and McDonough go further, pointing out that the inks typically used for printing on packaging are oil-based. Thus, composting of cardboard isn’t an acceptable solution either, as the cardboard part has become a monstrous hybrid, never to be separated. Again, burning for energy recovery becomes the most attractive option.

This is not just a problem that affects packaging, though. Consider polyester cotton garments: they’re superior to pure cotton in that they’re harder-wearing, they resist shrinkage and they crease less… but at the end of life you’ve got a mixture of materials that aren’t easily separated.

Help is at hand, in the form of emerging materials applications such as the use of starch to make disposable cutlery: plastic cutlery would be contaminated by food, and food waste would be contaminated by waste plastic… use a starch-based bioplastic and you can compost the lot – for cheaper waste disposal charges and a clearer conscience. You can make your own bioplastics right now; it’s not particularly complicated, and your main feedstock might be something as inexpensive as potato peelings – producing a material that can be moulded using existing machinery and techniques. There’s no need to assume automatically that when you specify a plastic component that means you’re dependent upon the oil industry.

Perhaps we really can remake the way we make things.

Scrap lead


Lead is great stuff. It’s ductile and malleable, and it resists corrosion. Quite a lot of it is used on the roof of my house, where it’s been folded into all kinds of odd shapes to keep the rain out of various nooks and crannies. The low melting point of lead is also useful if you’re soldering, and if added to petrol in the form of tetraethyl lead, it reduces engine knock and valve seat wear. Lead in ceramic glazes makes good, bold reds and yellows, and in paint it speeds up drying, increases durability and resists damage from moisture. Elsewhere, the density of the metal is useful, such as in making bullets, sailing boat keels or radiation shields.

What’s not to like?

Apart from the blood, nerve and brain disorders, the kidney damage, abdominal pains, muscle weakness, high blood pressure, anaemia, constipation, miscarriage, mood disorders, infertility, delayed puberty, learning disabilities, memory loss and reduced cognitive ability.

Apart from that, it’s great stuff.

Worryingly, when so much lead can be found in children’s toys, it has a sweet taste. In fact, the Romans used to sweeten their wine with powdered lead, which might go a long way towards explaining Nero and Calligula. In addition to ingestion, lead can be absorbed through skin contact and inhalation. When present in soil, it tends to bioaccumulate.

Roman lead ingot

Impressive corrosion resistance: a Roman lead ingot from the 1st century BC. (National Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Spain)

The Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (2002/95/EC) took effect on July 1st 2006. This restricted the use of six hazardous substances, including lead: a rather slow reaction to a problem originally reported by the Greek physician Nicander of Colophon in the 2nd century BC. Still, better late than never, eh?

While the elimination of lead addresses one problem, it created several new ones for the electronics industry. The melting point for lead-free solders was higher, which increased manufacturers’ energy consumption. It doesn’t flow as readily, which can cause increased defects (and makes hand-soldering more difficult), and lead-free solder tends to be more brittle than the alloy it replaces. Also, there’s the problem of “tin whiskers” – a crystalline metallurgical phenomenon whereby short circuits can occur over time. Going ‘green’ has caused the electronics industry a lot of problems.

Interestingly, although a car mustn’t have any lead in the solder on its circuit boards, it’s likely to include as much as ten kilos of lead in the battery. This is tolerated because the recycling rate for used car batteries is so good; suggests that 98–99% of car batteries in the USA are returned for recycling, and a typical new battery contains 60–80% recycled material. With a good closed loop for recycling (made possible because lead is valuable enough to be worth collecting) it’s possible to continue using even this dreadfully toxic material. If only we could achieve the same recycling rates for circuit boards!

Car batteries

The lead-acid battery: invented in 1859, and still going strong.

For the tetraethyl lead that is the main reason why you have 100–500 times as much lead in your body as a person who lived before the industrial revolution, you have Thomas Midgley Jr to thank. He was the mechanical engineer who did so much to promote the use of gasoline with tetraethyl lead. That wasn’t his only gift to mankind, though: he also invented Freon, the CFC refrigerant/propellant that’s done so much to harm the ozone layer. Always a prolific inventor, when Midgley contracted polio in 1940 he invented an pulley system that would allow a carer to lift him in and out of bed.

In November 1944 it malfunctioned, and strangled him to death.