A Cool Wall

Back in 2011, Peter Kinnell and I were developing a module in sustainable manufacturing at the University of Nottingham. Although we’ve both moved on to pastures new, they still run the module, and good luck to them: it’s an important topic.

Peter and I had plenty of basic sustainability concepts to throw into the mix: the triple bottom line, remanufacturing, legislation, greenwash, recyclability and so on, but we wanted to have a bit more fun with it. Was there some kind of group activity that could be a common theme throughout the eleven weeks of the module?

A game perhaps? We didn’t find anything on the Internet. Supply chain management has the Beer Distribution Game; manufacturing has (predictably enough) the Manufacturing Game; sales and marketing has (or had) Unilever’s ‘UniSim’ game[1]… but where is the ‘green game’?

We didn’t find one. I have since created something for young people that simulates the clash between economics and green goals at the political level, but at the time and as far as we could tell, there wasn’t a ‘green manufacturing game’.

So, as staff setting up an all-new module have to… we got lazy. Instead of a game with decisions to make each week, we went for something simpler, and created the ‘Sustainability Cool Wall’. If you’ve seen the BBC’s late, lamented Top Gear programme[2], you’ll be familiar with the Cool Wall: an imprecise (or at least highly subjective) linear scale upon which pictures of vehicles are placed, to indicate the desirability of each car.  For example, Skodas of all kinds were rated “seriously uncool”, BMWs were mostly judged “uncool”, the Mazda RX-8 was “cool” and the Jaguar XJR was “sub-zero”. (These are the opinions of motoring journalists, and not necessarily endorsed here at Capacify.)

Chaotic, contentious, but immediately comprehensible: the Top Gear Cool Wall [BBC TV]

Chaotic, contentious, but immediately comprehensible: the Top Gear Cool Wall [BBC TV]

The Sustainability Cool Wall ran from “cool” to “fool”, the latter in fiery letters that can be associated with climate change, if you like.

Cool scale

There were five subdivisions: future-proof, promising, better than nothing, misguided, and suicidal. We started the class off with a few examples, such as my rant about CFL bulbs, and then the students were invited to nominate items for the Wall during each session.

We weren’t able to use a physical wall, because we had to vacate the classroom as leave it as we had found it each week. Instead, we opted for an electronic version, maintained by the tutors. I hope one day to find a web-based service that will permit students to position images on the ‘board’ at any time… that would be neat.

Let’s have a look at some of the judgments that appeared on our Cool Wall – each successfully ‘sold’ to the group, to produce a consensus of opinion. We were impressed by the remanufacturing work being done by Brother Industries UK (two of their staff attended the class as guest speakers). We liked ‘Liter of Light, the low-cost ‘light pipe’ made from an old lemonade bottle containing water and a little bleach, as used in the Philippines. We were dubious about biofuels that replaced food crops, but we liked the news that Virgin Atlantic were experimenting with a biofuel made from the algal bloom on sewage. Other ‘cool’ items included a low-cost water filter, and the humble bicycle.

Yes: a group of students judged Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to be ‘cool’. Honestly!

Yes: a group of students judged Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to be ‘cool’. Honestly!

We were horrified by the Jiangling Landwind, the cheap 4×4 that had performed worse in crash test results than any vehicle had done for decades… and equally doubtful about Sheddable Shell, a brand of disposable polyethylene-polypropylene clothing used by (and discarded by) runners. We ridiculed Gillette when an inquiry from Peter was responded to with a classic piece of corporate ‘boilerplate’ text about how much they care for the environment – nothing but ‘Greenwash’, we decided. I don’t recall the reasons for one student’s loathing of the Cambridge to Ely guided bus scheme, and this is an important lesson if you ever want to run a Cool Wall of your own: you need to record the why as well as the what, if you intend to refer back to it later.

Could you have a ‘Supply Chain Cool Wall’? Well… maybe. I think any subject could be judged on a spectrum of ‘cool’ if it ends up looking at successes and failures, heroes and villains, desirable products and dross. I don’t believe the Cool Wall would work so well in a “block mode” setting (I teach mostly via intensive, weekend-long workshops nowadays) but where students come together for a few hours every week, the Cool Wall provides a good reason to reflect upon personal experiences or stories in the news, with a view to bringing something up in the next class.


[1] Last time I ran Unisim with students, it came on a 5¼” floppy disc and ran under DOS, so don’t hold your breath for this one. (But a reboot would be very much appreciated!)

[2] Apparently the BBC still plan to make the show, but without Clarkson et al… meh.


The Broadest Railway Gauge… Ever. Ever.

In an earlier article, I wrote about the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge, which I found to be wonderfully quirky, with elements of boat, railway and gantry crane about it. This time, though, we look at what you’d get if you could crossbreed a seaside pier, a pleasure steamer, and a tram.

Magnus Volk had already had a success with his Electric Railway in Brighton. It opened in 1883, the third such railway or tramway in the world, the first in the UK and the oldest surviving one. In the summertime you can still go for a ride along the same seafront track, in a funny little yellow carriage.

With a successful passenger transport business in place, Volk wanted to extend the line eastwards, but found that he would need to ascend to clifftop level – a costly and difficult proposition.

So what do you do?

You build your railway in the sea, of course! (In this, Volk may have been inspired by the Pont Roulant, a ‘rolling bridge’ that ran on submerged rails, across the harbour entrance at St Malo in France. That wasn’t self-propelled, though.)

Volk had two 825 mm gauge tracks laid down on land that was exposed at low tide, running all the way to the village of Rottingdean, some 4½km away. These were no ordinary narrow gauge lines, though: they ran parallel, the whole way, and the vehicle that was designed to ride on the rails straddled both – giving it a gauge of 5.5m.

The tram itself was called ‘Pioneer’, but most people called it Daddy Long Legs – and at 7m, they certainly were long. Pioneer’s main deck was 13.7m by 6.7m, and featured a glazed cabin with leather-upholstered seating, and a second promenade deck on its roof. Because it was technically a seagoing vessel, it had to have a qualified captain at the helm, and was equipped with life preservers and a small boat on davits. (In this pre-Titanic era, it seems you weren’t obliged to have enough lifeboat space for everyone…)

Poster advertising Pioneer

A Sea Voyage, on Wheels. Six pence.

At 46 tonnes, it may have been the biggest thing that the Gloucester Railway Carriage & Wagon Company ever made. A single trolleybus-style cable stretched along the whole of Pioneer’s route, providing power at 500V (DC). Current was returned via the rails, and via the sea itself when the tide was high. (This was long before anybody ever muttered those killjoy words, “Health and Safety.”)

Equipped with a pair of 25hp (18.65kW) motors from General Electric, Pioneer was horribly underpowered, and struggled to push its way through a high tide. It wasn’t very well streamlined, but it was tremendously popular.

Volk’s sea tram, underway

They certainly don’t make ’em like they used to…

The railway opened on November 28th 1896, but there was a terrible storm a week later that caused Pioneer to slip her moorings and roll away down the track. Pioneer ended up lying on her side, badly damaged. Repairs began straight away, but it wasn’t until the following July that the line reopened. Nonetheless, 44,282 passengers were carried that year.

Presently, shifting of the stones beneath the track’s sleepers forced a closure for repairs in the middle of the tourist season. Then in 1901 the council announced construction of a beach protection barrier that would have forced Volk to divert his line in order to avoid the new obstacle. He chose to close up shop instead: the world’s only seagoing tram was moored at Ovingdean Gap until 1910, when the whole lot was cut up for scrap. Today, all that remains of the railway is some of the concrete sleepers, visible at low tide.

This 3D modelled reproduction gives some idea of the scale of the Pioneer. [Animation by Delaney Digital]

Clearly, the Brighton to Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway never worked very well, and it didn’t bring in enough money to justify costly track alterations… but if it had somehow avoided the scrap man’s oxyacetylene torch, what a wonderful tourist attraction it would make today!

Inadvertently, in the process, those Victorian engineers built the widest railway ever. The tongue-twisting Lärchwandschrägaufzug in Austria has a broader gauge, at 8.2m, but that’s a funicular railway, and basically a repurposed goods lift that now carries tourists. If you feel that a funicular qualifies, then there’s the ship-lift at the Krasnoyarsk Dam, with a track width of 9m… but is either a ‘railway’? Hardly. Disappointingly, I can’t cite the Montech water slope either. It’s a mind-boggling contraption that uses a pair of permanently connected diesel locos on either side of a canal, working to to raise 1,500 m³ of water (and boats)… but the whole thing runs on pneumatic tyres, not rails.

So… for my money, Volk built the widest railway the world has ever seen. His 5.5m dwarfs even the Nazis’ daydream of connecting all their conquered territory with the 3m gauge Breitspurbahn – itself monstrous when compared to the 1.435 m (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) of our standard gauge.

The idea of using water where the land doesn’t offer suitable geography has recently popped up again, with the Thames Deckway project. The proposal is for a 12km, floating toll path running from Battersea to Canary Wharf, for cyclist commuters during rush-hour and tourists at other times. Although expensive, it appears to be reasonably benign in environmental terms: one of those ideas to file under “so crazy it might just work”.

Thames Deckway concept

Thames Deckway concept [image: River Cycleway Consortium]

I’d much rather relax with a Pimm’s on the foredeck of the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, though.

Peg Doubt

In early May 2012, a decision was taken to end the practice of pegging the Malawian Kwacha to the US dollar, instead allowing the exchange rate to be determined in the foreign exchange market. There were some good reasons for abandoning the currency peg – not least because it was a precondition for international aid payments – but what supply chain effects would the new floating currency have?

When you adopt a floating currency, a reasonable supposition is that it will actually float. Bobbing up and down between known limits is acceptable behaviour for a floating currency: sinking like a stone, less so.

Origami boat made out of Euro banknotes

A floating currency?

By the time the new president (Her Excellency Dr Joyce Banda) ended the currency peg, the Kwacha was substantially overvalued. Imports were growing faster than exports, and even while the peg was in place there was a thriving black market in foreign exchange. Downward pressure on the Kwacha was made worse by what economists call depreciation: a fall in the unofficial value of the currency.

On May 7th, the pegged rate of 165 Kwacha to the US dollar ended, and the rate slipped at once to more than 250. This led to panic-buying – and why not, when imported goods are seen to become more expensive overnight? As hard-working and inventive as the Malawians may be, there’s simply no way for an agrarian economy to react quickly to the price of virtually all manufactured goods going up by a third, or more.

BBC News of panic buying as the Kwacha is devalued

May 7th, 2012: Devaluation begins [BBC News]

In October of that year, Malawi Institute of Management asked us to organise a seminar discussing the implications for the supply chain. Understanding these economic issues wasn’t an easy task, given that I was (a) visiting the country for the first time, and (b) a manufacturing engineer, not an economist. Still, I reasoned that a seminar is all about listening, not telling. We had a marquee full of supply chain professionals, and a couple of hours to put the world to rights. (Or at least, the economy of one small nation.)

The seminar involved a number of activities, the first of which was listing the advantages and disadvantages of having a floating currency… but it seemed that the audience were still smarting from the sudden removal of the currency peg: they had nothing good to say about the floating currency. (Bear in mind that anybody who had savings in the bank will have seen them reduced in value, and businesses that had liabilities expressed in US dollars would be finding it desperately hard to service their debts.)

Economic theory says that a currency peg is good in that it increases investor confidence and imposes price discipline (at least until the point when the government ends the practice) but the disadvantage of a fixed exchange rate is that it requires vast stocks of foreign exchange. Basically, the core job of the central bank is to maintain the currency peg: there is limited freedom to address domestic economic priorities. Also, when the International Monetary Fund suspends a major aid programme, suggesting that liberalisation of the foreign exchange market would unlock donor cash… that’s a powerful argument in favour of the floating currency.

So, on May 7th 2012, everything changed. At our seminar, we learned from the delegates exactly what the changes meant for supply chain professionals…

The Difficulty of Budgeting

Budgeting was reported to have become virtually impossible. For example, the budget for a government department had to be planned such that payments could be released throughout the year, but exchange rate changes meant that any sum set aside for purchases in subsequent quarters was likely to be inadequate. This tended to force managers to be reactive, rather than proactive. Long-term plans involving cash flows have very limited value during a time of high inflation, the delegates said.

Procurement Complexity

This was reported to be particularly difficult, since a request for quotation was likely to produce a time-limited offer, often being valid for as little as 24 hours, because suppliers were equally inconvenienced by variable exchange rates. Where an organisation’s purchasing procedures require that three quotes are obtained it was virtually impossible to get all three within the same 24-hour period, and impossible to compare them thereafter, since one or more would have expired… at which point the quotation process had to begin again.

Transportation Difficulties

Delegates reported logistics to be tremendously more complicated as a result of scarce supplies of petrol, and in particular diesel. (Fuel was also reported to be a problem for the construction industry.) This is not merely an issue of high price, but one of availability, with fuel at times not being available at all… or of those who have fuel choosing not to sell it, since they seemed not to want the Kwacha that they would obtain in return. Transportation difficulties were thus compounded by increasing prices in the global market, reduced local buying power, and panic buying. The result – reduced transportation capability – further impacted upon trade, and thus harmed the economy.

Warehousing Issues

This was frequently mentioned by delegates, in the context of preferring to stockpile raw materials or supplies in order to offset price increases by buying early, and in bulk. Some delegates mentioned the danger of spoilage rates increasing as a result of inventory levels being increased, however.

Inability to Save

It was felt to be very difficult for families to set money aside to deal with price fluctuations (for example, by buying in bulk), at a time when any unspent money was liable to be reduced in value if it wasn’t spent immediately. This “living in the now” made major purchases harder to save up for, and was consequently bad for the nation.

Falling Incomes

Some delegates discussed industrial unrest caused by increased wage demands resulting from devaluation. After all, if you only get to renegotiate your salary once a year or so, how do you know how much to ask for?

The Situation Today

The slide of the Kwacha continues. As an occasional visitor, I notice it in things like a laundry list that has a sticker on it, replacing the printed prices with updated ones… and a heftier price for a bottle of Carlsberg ‘Green’.

Value of the Malawian Kwacha over the last 5 years

MWK/USD exchange rate over the last five years [xe.com]

It’s not hyper-inflation of the kind that some nations have demonstrated: you don’t need a shoebox full of banknotes to pay for lunch, as was the case in Zimbabwe recently. Demonetization of the Zimbabwean dollar came to an end in September this year, at an exchange rate of 35 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars to US$1… which at least has the virtue of being educational: I learned how many zeroes there are in a quadrillion. (If you’re interested, a quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000.)

Sweeping up unwanted currency

The Hungarian Pengö performed even worse than the Zimbabwean Dollar, and by 1946 they were nothing but litter.

Wherever it is found, though, a softening currency is a headache for supply chain professionals, and a burden for families… and I don’t have many answers to offer. “Export or Die” might have been the advice of the British Ministry of Information, back in 1946… but what do you do when your principal export is the increasingly unfashionable tobacco?

We shall see.