Tag Archives: supply chain innovation

How The Space Elevator Could Open Up Interplanetary Supply Chains

The prohibitive cost of lifting payloads out of the Earth’s atmosphere is hamstringing humanity’s conquest of the solar system. The space elevator may soon make chemical rockets a thing of the past.  

space elevator

At the Coupa Inspire conference in May this year, keynote speaker Richard Branson announced plans to have Virgin Hotels orbiting the planet within 40 years.

Branson’s famous “anything is possible” attitude was on display, as he breezily talked of shuttle trips between his space hotels and the surface of the moon, and observatory domes where guests can marvel at the Earth from above.

Branson’s audience predominantly consisted of procurement professionals, many of whom were turning their minds to the challenge of maintaining a supply chain in space.

Considering the vast amount of goods and services that flow through any mere terrestrial hotel, the prospect of supplying a space hotel, or any other off-planet settlement, is daunting.

The Payload Challenge

It’s unbelievably expensive to send cargo into space. These days, all eyes are on SpaceX. Elon Musk’s company is leading the way in reducing the cost of payload delivery through lean operations, integrated engine production and reusable spacecraft.

At full capacity, the Falcon 9 rocket can lift cargo to low-earth orbit at US$1233 per pound ($2719 per kg). NASA is paying SpaceX $133 million per mission to resupply the International Space Station. This equates to $27,000 per pound ($59,500 per kg) of cargo delivered.

Reducing the cost of payload delivery is one of the highest priorities for Musk, who has stated that $500 per pound ($1100 per kg) or less is an achievable goal.

Even with payload cost being driven ever-lower, the expense still makes the prospect of a regular delivery service (such as a space hotel supply chain) prohibitively expensive.

Tech Insider recently published a playful article working out the hair-raising costs of some of the unnecessary items NASA has launched into space. They calculated that astronaut Kjell Lindgren’s bagpipes, for example, would have cost anywhere from $54,600 to $259,000 to deliver.

The International Space Station’s espresso machine weighs 44 pounds (20kg), and would have cost between $400,400 and $1.9 million to deliver.

The Space Elevator – A Better Way to Lift Cargo into Space

Arthur C. Clarke predicted that the space elevator would be built “about 10 years after everyone stops laughing”. That’s because at first glance, it seems like pure science-fiction. The thing to understand about how the space elevator would work is that it isn’t a tower or ladder to space, but rather a tether.

Space elevator structural diagram

The Earth-end of the tether would be attached to the surface near the equator, while the other end would be anchored to an object in space (most likely a space-station) beyond geostationary orbit, or 35,800km in altitude. The tether would therefore be held stationary under tension as the space station tried to “pull away” from the planet.

At present, no material exists with the tensile properties required to construct the tether, but teams all over the world are working on the challenge.

Recently, carbon nanotubes, boron nitride nanotubes, and diamond nanothreads have all been considered viable new materials, enabling scientists to inch ever closer to the required tensile strength.

There are many other challenges involved, but commentators agree that once the tether question has been solved, the other components of the elevator will be relatively simple to design and construct.  

A Freight Train to Space

Once constructed, laser or solar-powered ‘climbers’ would ascend and descend the tether, taking materials and passengers to geostationary orbit. Payload prices could be as low as $100 per pound ($220 per kg), with two added advantages.

Firstly, proponents predict a working elevator would be significantly safer than chemical rocket technology. And secondly, the climbers would operate continuously.

Journalists often write about the space elevator in the singular, but there is no reason why the planet would only have one. In fact, it’s likely that multiple competitive nations (and private enterprises) would insist on having their own.

Opening Up Space

With working space elevators, the enormous expenditure of fuel used in boosting chemical step-rockets up through our atmosphere will become a thing of the past.

Spacecraft will no longer be needed for surface-to-space lifts or descents. Instead they will only be needed to move from point to point in space. After an initial boost, a craft in space simply falls freely along its trajectory, with only short-term adjustments and deceleration required.

Space elevators need not be limited to Earth. Within the next century, we may “drop” shorter tethers to the surface of the moon and Mars, with regular cargo and passenger services plying their way between the space stations at the top of the elevators. The complex task of keeping a Moon or Mars colony supplied would become much more feasible.

But that’s thinking a long way ahead. In the medium-term future, Branson’s luxury space hotel may well sit atop a space elevator, supplying its every need.

In the short-term, any day now we may read that scientists have discovered materials strong enough to construct the tether. At which point – as Arthur C. Clarke predicted – everyone will stop laughing.

Is Procurement Serious About Sustainability?

When price is king, and procurement is often accused of “bullying” suppliers, can we really say procurement is serious about sustainability initiatives?

Procurement Sustainability

This article is by Gerard Chick, Chief Knowledge Officer, Optimum Procurement Group.

As we entered 2016, many of us will have made New Year’s Resolutions. It strikes me that this is as relevant to our professional lives as it is to our personal lives.

Eating or drinking too much is as unsustainable as exercising too little. The above all have outcomes that are bad. We know they are bad, and we also know that to change them is hard.

Last year, the newspapers and other media outlets were teeming with stories about procurement professionals using “bullying” tactics against suppliers, and with claims that big brands were using their power to squeeze suppliers. Inevitably a breakdown of trust (amongst other things) began to emerge, and this clearly needs to be resolved.

We read about farmers protesting against Morrisons’ terms of contracts. We read about Majestic Wine dropping their chief buyer after its pre-tax profits dropped by almost half, and supply chain relationships became tense after it asked suppliers to give them cash towards new warehousing. We also read about Carlsberg facing hostility from its suppliers after it extended its payment terms to 93 days.

Regrettably, such practices are all too common. The tactics used by big business towards suppliers have become a standard feature of today’s marketplace, where price is king and any means of reducing costs seems to be considered valid.

Contemplating Behaviours

And yet procurement frequently claims it is in the van when it comes to issues regarding sustainability. Some supply managers are, but many aren’t. A more sustainable supply chain is needed, but it will only emerge when the breakdown in trust between suppliers and procurement is resolved.

Let’s take a step back. The word frequently used in the media was ‘bullying’, but perhaps if we are to put this right we should contemplate ‘behaviours’. A better word, I feel, and one we can focus on in a more professional manner.

Perhaps these behaviours reflect that many of these people are simply unskilled and, even worse, unaware of it. The difficulty being that it is hard for them to recognise their incompetence, which in turn leads to inflated self-assessments of their skills and abilities.

Bad relationships are not just about negative publicity and brand damage, but also impact on the ambitious sustainability targets many businesses are now setting themselves.

Take climate change. Up to 90 per cent of the greenhouse emissions linked to a company are generated outside its immediate operations, with the lion’s share often occurring in its supply chain.

Collaboration Over Compliance

Moreover, business’ struggle for economic survival must not come at expense just about anything else! Big business characteristically operates in a top-down manner. Supply managers issue suppliers with codes of conduct and environmental targets, and oblige them to comply. The result is an exploitative game between suppliers and auditors sent out to verify farms, factories, working conditions and so forth.

Not only is compliance difficult to achieve, especially beyond the second tier, but it’s only half the story. A more effective solution would be for procurement professionals and suppliers to work together to develop innovative solutions to supply chain issues and to help ensure each others’ sustainability.

It strikes me too, that the smaller, more agile supply organisations (as well as procurement organisations) are more likely to be able to innovate than the behemoths of big business, stuck in their cycle of annularity and the need to satisfy shareholders at all costs.

Tapping Supply Base Creativity

So how can companies looking to become more sustainable tap the creativity of their supply base? The first and most obvious answer is to cut the double-messaging. Corporate procurement teams are frequently blindsided by a ‘cost-out’ mantra. The risk this poses is it frequently supersedes all other agendas and that is simply not sustainable.

The perennial issues of time, cost, quality and service will always feature in procurement decisions, but social and environmental considerations must be factored in as well. Alignment is key. For example, Marks & Spencer prohibits its procurement teams from purchasing any product that can’t meet at least one of the goals of its corporate sustainability plan.

This often leads suppliers to view such demands as a box to tick. To remedy this, suppliers need to be incentivised. New ways of working need time, resources and dedicated attention – all of which are at a premium for small suppliers.

Changing Behaviours

What is needed is a change in behaviours and the development of more trusting relationships. Ideally procurement organisations need to co-invest in the long-term research and development with their key suppliers.

As mentioned above, annularity dominates the mind-set and behaviours of many large companies. They simply focus on the short-term and would rather sit back and wait for proof of concept, than stump up the cash and experiment.

Ultimately, talk of sustainability-focused supply chain innovation will only ever begin to take effect when the breakdown in trust between suppliers and buyers is resolved. That requires a shift from a model based on adversarial brinkmanship, to one of mutual interest and transparency. The more open and honest a corporate customer is about its sustainability challenges, the higher the chance of generating innovative solutions.

Perhaps now is the time for procurement professionals to make a New Year’s resolution.