Project Logistics: Mission Possible
Their mission, should they decide to accept it, is to transport sensitive materials around the globe. They'll grapple with issues of size, time, cost, scheduling, security, and fragility. Failure is not an option. They are project logistics professionals.
Whether they're transporting priceless objects between museums, delivering life-saving medical products, provisioning one-of-a-kind public events, or simply opening a new store, the people who work in the hectic, high-pressure world of project logistics routinely handle critical shipments encumbered with unique characteristics and demands.
They must typically cope with long-distance hauls, oversized cargo, perishable items, fragile merchandise, and various other types of hard-to-handle shipments. They often face time and security constraints as well as the need to reach remote and difficult-to-access locations.
Project logistics imposes demands and carries responsibilities that might make a typical logistics manager cringe with horror or cry in despair.
"It's not an area for the meek," says David Simchi-Levi, a supply chain analyst with the Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS), a society of operations research professionals based in Hanover, Md.
"Special-needs logistics situations are generally so demanding that few enterprises are willing or capable of supporting them on their own."
The companies that do handle project logistics are "fixers"—capable of tackling just about any assignment, no matter how difficult or complex.
Project logistics experts pride themselves on being able to offer a level of in-depth knowledge about shipping modes, schedules, routes, handling procedures, local services, and government regulations that even the most capable mainstream third-party logistics (3PL) provider might be hard-pressed to match.
Businesses tackling critical projects can benefit from an outside expert to handle customs, security, and other crucial details, says Dominique Bischoff-Brown, chief operating officer of New York-based project logistics specialist Quick International Courier.
"Because the rules change every day, companies risk a serious disaster if they lack compliance understanding or proceed without proper support," she says. "Project logistics providers are heavily regulated."
For most companies facing unique projects, it simply doesn't pay to train employees in processes and regulations that they may never again encounter. "For such business needs, outsourcing is the logical solution," Simchi-Levi says.
On the following pages, learn how three project logistics providers handled mission-critical challenges: mobilizing a 2,000-year-old army, rushing life-saving perishables to Africa, and performing a logistics balancing act.
When Shi Huang Di, the first emperor of China, began building his terracotta army in 210 B.C., he never imagined that many of its members would one day be whisked halfway around the world to tour major cities in a continent that he didn't even know existed. Yet that's exactly what's happening this year.
Atlanta's High Museum, working with the British Museum, has arranged for selected pieces of the Terracotta Warriors collection to visit several U.S. cities, giving museum-goers a close-up, once-in-a-lifetime view.
The High is an experienced hand at arranging tours of such one-of-a-kind art collections. Most notably, in 2006, the museum launched "Louvre Atlanta," a three-year series of exhibitions showcasing hundreds of masterpieces from the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Over the years, the institution has gradually become an expert at project logistics. It's a trend that's sweeping the museum world.
"Many museums now employ registrars to arrange logistics and insurance for their exhibitions," says Frances R. Francis, the High's registrar.
Even with the High's experience handling high-profile international exhibitions, getting the Terracotta Warriors to the United States wasn't easy. The detailed, life-like warriors are no toy army. The figures range in height from six to 6.5 feet, according to their role (the generals are the tallest).
Other figures include foot soldiers, officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians, as well as horses and chariots.
To move these formidable objects to the states, the High turned to UPS, the carrier it worked with to transport the Louvre masterpieces.
"UPS has proven to be a responsive and effective carrier for international museum loans, and we knew it would be well-positioned to handle this project because of its depth of experience in Asia, both as an official carrier for the Beijing Olympics and its prior success transporting pandas to the Atlanta Zoo and whale sharks to the Georgia Aquarium," Francis says.
Getting the figures to the United States was a massive job. In Shanghai, the exhibit was packed into 42 specially constructed crates that were loaded onto a 747-400. A giant air freighter was built with a nose that rises and flips open, allowing the large cargo to load through the front.
"We wanted to load the cargo in the safest possible way, with plenty of room to spare," says Bland Matthews, loadmaster for Atlanta-based UPS Airlines and head of the team coordinating the Terracotta Warriors shipping project.
Specialists in China designed the project's crates and packing techniques to insulate the artifacts from extreme temperatures and humidity, and protect them from vibration.
"The horse, for example, is suspended within a cushioned inner frame to prevent stress on its long, slender legs," Francis notes.
At each transit phase, UPS worked closely with the Chinese specialists and handling agents to ensure the crates were treated not just with care, but with respect for the contents as national treasures.
UPS flew the Warriors to Anchorage, then to its Ontario, Calif., air hub, where workers loaded them on three UPS Freight trucks equipped with air-ride trailers. The figures' first stop was the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif. The exhibit debuted at the museum May 18, 2008.
Over the next two years, the Warriors will be trucked from Santa Ana to museums in Houston and Washington, as well as the High. In 2010, the exhibit will fly back to China from Washington.
Fragile, Handle with Care
While the Terracotta Warriors exhibit is exceptional, so are virtually all touring museum exhibits. "Due to the fragility and value of the objects, all museum shipments require expedited transport with enhanced security," Francis says.
Often, the owners or lenders of the objects require personal oversight of all handling, to the extent that they will accompany the objects in transport.
Museums and other institutions interested in obtaining exhibits from sister organizations have a variety of planning sources at their disposal.
"The American Association of Museums, The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works, and the National Park Service, among others, offer a wealth of resources and publications related to the safe packing and transport of fragile objects," says Francis.
Milk of Human Kindness
Logistics projects don't get more special than the consignments provided by the International Breast Milk Project. The organization, based in Rochester, Minn., accepts donations of breast milk from mothers in the United States to feed babies in Africa who have been orphaned or abandoned as a result of HIV/AIDs.
Since the organization's inception in 2006, more than 800 mothers have applied to provide their milk to the project. Moving easily spoiled breast milk from the United States to Africa is a demanding logistics project.
"One slip-up along the way, and everything is ruined," says Jill Youse, the International Breast Milk Project's founder and executive director.
Due to the critical nature of its lifesaving shipments, the organization's project managers must ensure that the milk is treated with special care by cold chain transportation specialists, from pickup through final delivery.
The shipment's temperature must be monitored and maintained throughout transit and the delivery time must be precise in order to ensure the product's viability.
"The milk is tested, screened, processed, and bottled," Youse explains. "Then it's labeled with fat, calories, and protein content information." Next, the milk is frozen and loaded onto pallets and into special breast milk shipping containers.
When it reaches its destination, the shipment goes into local cold storage, and the organization receiving the milk collects it as needed.
The project typically pays carriers to move its shipments, but sometimes the services are donated. Last year, for example, Quick International Courier, a global priority transportation service provider, donated its expertise and services to move a milk shipment from the United States to Durban, South Africa.
Quick got involved in the project after Steve Zeiger, a company account representative, saw a news story about it. Impressed, Zeiger investigated how his company could contribute to the cause.
Quick was well-prepared to provide assistance because the company's teams handle everything from mission-critical documents and packages to perishable and high-value items, such as vital medical devices and transplantable organs.
Quick moved 5,300 ounces of donated milk to the iThemba Lethu orphan home, a non-profit organization based in Durban. "Project logistics can be a business lifesaver," Quick COO Bischoff-Brown says, "but it can save human lives as well."
Founded in 1984 as a group of 20 street performers, Cirque du Soleil has grown over the years to become one of the world's largest and best-known entertainment organizations.
With almost 4,000 employees from more than 40 countries—including 1,000 performers—Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil is renowned for its shows combining acrobatics, dance, music, and art.
Nearly 80 million spectators in more than 200 cities on five continents have enjoyed the company's performances. In 2008, Cirque du Soleil will present 18 simultaneous mobile and fixed-location shows inside theaters, arenas, big-top tents, and other venues around the world. It's a schedule that's both challenging and daunting.
Cirque du Soleil's logistics strategy is every bit as acrobatic, dazzling, and demanding as the company's onstage performances.
"We manage one of the most complex tour logistics operations imaginable," says Bernard Dubuc, Cirque du Soleil's senior director of technical operations.
Few performance organizations supervise a half-dozen simultaneous tours located at various points worldwide, each with 50-plus trucks packed with sets, costumes, massive tents, kitchens, restroom facilities, and various types of production equipment.
"We play the Arab world, South America, North America, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Australia, andwe're trying our hand at Africa soon," Dubuc says. "This is not an easy gig."
Planning is essential to keep everything running smoothly, and everyone involved must know their roles. Customs regulations, for example, vary widely between countries, and each troupe's tightly managed schedule doesn't allow for surprises.
"We can't arrive at the gate and discover we aren't allowed to import a certain product into the country," Dubuc says. "We can't find out we have a problem that day; we need to find out about it earlier, then find time to fix it."
Cirque du Soleil currently plans its tour schedules nine to 12 months in advance, and divides its project logistics work into two categories.
Events in the United States, Canada, and Europe are handled by Cirque du Soleil, which contracts out shipping services to various carriers. Shipments for troupes touring elsewhere in the world are handled by Rock-It Cargo, a Los Angeles-based company that specializes in performance tour logistics.
In addition to Cirque du Soleil, Rock-It provides logistics support to performers ranging from Pearl Jam to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as a variety of museums and other cultural institutions.
Both Cirque du Soleil and Rock-It use a variety of transportation modes, including trucks, jumbo jets, and even ships (when items have to be transferred between continents and time allows), to move freight between locations. Time pressures, in fact, are never far from Dubuc's mind.
"In show business, all shipments are extremely time-sensitive, because tickets have been sold," he says. "The construction business is considered time sensitive, but opening a building a day late is not fatal."
Missing a single performance, however, can create serious financial consequences for Cirque du Soleil. "Missing just one show could completely wipe out the financials of the move," Dubuc says.
Yet circumstances beyond the control of either Cirque du Soleil or Rock-It continuously threaten to devastate even the most carefully constructed plans.
"Boats do sometimes arrive a day late because of bad weather or other factors," Dubuc says. "It happens—we live in the real world."
But Dubuc, who has worked in the logistics field since 1969, is proud that his company has never lost a performance due to a lack of organization or planning, either in-house or at Rock-It.
Playing a Role
Dubuc attributes Cirque du Soleil's flawless track record to honest, straightforward communications both internally and with Rock-It. He notes that the logistics provider plays an integral role in Cirque du Soleil's scheduling operations.
"Rock-It takes part in all planning meetings," says Dubac. "That's important for a successful partnership." He appreciates that if a logistics problem arises, Rock-It immediately alerts him so that a solution can be found.
"More minds working together typically solve any problem," he adds.
Cirque du Soleil began its relationship with Rock-It in 2001 when moving a show from Europe to Miami.
"A friend who was handling the 'Aida' opera tour suggested them," Dubuc recalls. He contacted Rock-It CEO David Bernstein and told him about his need to move the massive production across the Atlantic.
"Bernstein said, 'no problem,' and he kept his promise," Dubuc says. Rock-It's ability to quickly address and solve the challenge impressed him.
While missed performances may threaten to dent Cirque du Soleil's bottom line, smart logistics planning can result in significant savings. That's where Rock-It's global expertise and knowledge of local regulations and optimum shipping modes to the remotest locations comes in handy.
"If Rock-It can save us even one day, we take it," Dubuc says. Rock-It's ability to ferret out time—and money-saving information impresses Dubac. "If I need information about customs into Burma, they'll have it within 12 hours," he notes.
Like many global project logistics firms, Rock-It maintains offices and agents in cities worldwide.
Dubuc says that Cirque du Soleil wouldn't be able to operate as efficiently or productively on the global stage without the help of its project logistics provider.
"Rock-It Cargo is an example of how to outsource a problem," he says.
In Other Realms
Most project logistics initiatives aren't nearly as glamorous as transporting ancient relics, life-sustaining fluids, or Las Vegas-caliber production sets.
In fact, the majority of projects are mundane events—stocking a new store, relocating a production facility, rebranding a business in a way that won't tip off the competition, or simply delivering exhibits to a trade show.
Yet, for the businesses involved, getting everyday critical freight delivered rapidly, efficiently, and securely is no less important than moving valuable artifacts or highly perishable goods.
"The projects may be unique by themselves, but they are the type of events that most businesses will face at least occasionally," INFORMS' Simchi-Levi says.
Unfortunately, many businesses wait until the last moment before calling a project logistics provider for help. They either underestimate the project's complexity or believe that they already have the in-house expertise necessary to handle the work.
Yet the longer a business waits, the more the project will cost as shipping options narrow and lower-cost alternatives vanish. Ultimately, the company finds itself scrambling to move shipments as deadlines are missed and schedules collapse.
"Planning is critical," Simchi-Levi says. "Some large projects can take years to execute properly."
Businesses requiring the assistance of a project logistics specialist need to do their homework in order to locate the firm best suited for the task at hand.
"With this type of service, it's important to find out everything you can about the service provider you may be working with," advises Quick's Bischoff-Brown. "Most importantly, determine the company's experience in your particular industry.
It's most important to examine a prospective partner's business structure and local connections.
"Project logistics work requires lots of management support and key contacts," Bischoff-Brown says. "Automation and technology are important, but success in project logistics depends on the people who work with you and listen to your specific needs.
Businesses facing a special logistics project need only look at the example set by Emperor Shi Huang Di to learn what not to do. Shi built an army to help protect his kingdom, but in the end wound up with rows of clay figures doing absolutely nothing.