Made in Transit: The end of the factory?

By Agata Jaworska

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Production, Supply chain

'Made in Transit' is a supply chain concept in which the production
of fresh perishable food happens on the way to the supermarket,
shifting the paradigm of packaging from preserving freshness to
enabling growth, a shift from 'best before' to 'ready by'.

Time and space normally captured by goods in transit is used to enable growth, eliminating or drastically reducing land-based growth, replacing post-harvest technology with growth-enabling technology, and bringing the harvest and consumption together. Logistics A to B ​Let's begin with a basic examination of a typical chain. Supply chains follow a logical sequence of events. With some variations they more or less all work in a similar manner as follows. First the raw material is extracted or harvested. In many cases the product incorporates some other previously semi-finished parts, like finished ingredients, or a specially made topping, each having gone through their own chain before final assembly. Then comes the packaging (also with its own chain), followed by distribution via several layers of warehousing to the retailer, where ultimately the consumer may choose to visit in looking to buy the product. Each step within the sequence is considered in isolation, therefore the best result is a series of optimised steps linked by reliable and efficient transportation. Within this, the role of transportation, is limited to carrying loads from A to B. Transport equals dormant time ​If we look to the chain again, we can see there are many stages in which nothing productive is happening. Each time goods are hauled into a vehicle, production stops and the goods enter hibernation mode until they reach the next production point, or the consumer. Products are created in order to be consumed and anything manufacturers and consumers do outside of production or consumption is merely an indirect enabler, a means but not an end. Transportation is essential in connecting distant factories, and in bringing the goods to the market, but it only serves to relocate the goods, and not to transform them in any productive way. Just like a production line, a chain cannot afford down time. Trapped inventory occupies time in which production or consumption is suspended, and therefore is a form of down time for the chain. Role of packaging ​Distribution is designed to minimise impact on the goods it carries. A delivery is successful precisely when nothing happens to the goods on board. Protective packaging, careful handling and driving are essentially a form of damage control preventing impact from the roughness of the road. Packaging protects and preserves the product, minimising vibration, preventing movement and impact shock, and isolating the contents from the effects of outside disturbances, like the weather, temperature, humidity. Like transport, packaging is viewed as an essential yet expensive and wasteful activity. "The best package is no package from an economic perspective," Michael Nieuwesteeg of the Netherlands Packaging Centre told me. The "Made in Transit" hypothesis ​The industry takes for granted that transportation and packaging can only locate and protect and not create or transform. Transportation and packaging are viewed as essential yet expensive and wasteful. But if one was to take a total chain perspective from the outset and skip steps, merge steps, or reverse the order of events, maybe transportation can be factored in as a productive creator of value. The 'Made in Transit' hypothesis is a projection of observed developments within the field of distribution. It is a total supply chain redesign in which production is merged with distribution, changing the role of transportation from the mere relocation of material to its productive transformation. Made in Transit is a holistic reconsideration of the product supply chain in which a synthesis of production with distribution creates a new mode of production. The chain reconstructed: an ideal model ​Let's reconsider the role of packaging and distribution. Currently, 'production' equals 'transformation', 'packaging' equals 'protection' and 'distribution' equals 're-location'. If we can turn the package into a growth condition, then the chain becomes: 1) packaging, 2) on the way growth and 3) consumption. The packaging and distribution functions would be transformed into production. The consequences of merging production with distribution could lead to the end of the factory since distribution space simultaneously becomes production space thereby eliminating or drastically reducing the need for a land-based production facility. On-demand production could also become more of a reality. If the product can be created on the way to the market, then it does not have to be made until the order comes in. This prevents overproduction and consequent waste. More customisation could also be achieved. Production at the level of the package may be more conducive to customisation than production on a mass scale. Another consequence could be a shorter supply chain. Merging production with distribution shortens the chain, enabling a faster response rate to changing market demands. As an alternative to shortening the chain, manufacturers could chose to slow transportation down while maintaining the same overall supply time. This could mean the use of cheaper and more energy efficient transport modalities, such as the boat rather than the plane. The 'Made in Transit' hypothesis is a projection of observed developments within the field of distribution. How fresh are our fresh chains? ​The instant a crop is removed from the ground or separated from its parent plant, a steady process of deterioration begins. Methods to compensate for the loss of quality, taste and nutrients can only slow the process of deterioration down, but the result will never match the qualities the raw material had at the farm. Current fresh food supply chains operate on the paradigm of preserving freshness between the moment of harvest and consumption, employing post-harvest technologies to slow down the eventual decay. If we can shift the paradigm to enabling growth along the way, then we automatically deliver absolute freshness and the consumer can harvest his own food. The result is systemised distribution with zero post-harvest preservation. Damage control ​Everything that happens between the point of harvest and consumption largely defines the final quality of the good and industry works hard to slow the natural process of deterioration down. Yet despite its efforts, in the Netherlands alone the yearly loss of income from expired perishables is estimated at €500m, or 5-10 per cent of the total turnover. Packaging, the cold chain and faster transport are employed to slow down the eventual decay. Yet the extent to which the products our global supply chains deliver are fresh, nutritious and delicious is questionable. Shifting the paradigm from preservation to one which enables growth could mean the end of post-harvest, the end of preservation, slow transport, unlimited distribution range, consumer harvest, zero harvest labour and the use of free growth space. Mushroom growth packaging ​The 'Made in Transit' concept does not apply equally to all commodities. It wouldn't make sense for bananas, because then we would either be shipping the trees or working on in vitro methods of fruit tissue cell proliferation (we'll leave this for next year's thesis). Mushrooms, however, are highly perishable, relatively easy to grow and produce a fruit body that is fully edible. There are also a lot of varieties that currently cannot reach our supermarket shelves precisely because they are so perishable. The rice straw mushroom is one such example, with cultivation limited to China, Taiwan and Thailand. The rice straw mushroom begins to liquidify as soon as refrigerated and is currently available on the world market only in canned form. Currently, 55 per cent of the mushrooms traded in the world market are in a processed form - with 50 per cent sold as canned and 5 per cent in dehydrated form. If we can grow mushrooms on the way then their distribution in fresh form theoretically becomes unlimited. The Made in Transit hypothesis becomes a system of mushroom cultivation which can supply the world with the most perishable species by growing them on the way. The Netherlands experience ​Harvesting mushrooms is labour intensive, often accounting for 40 per cent of the cost of production. With fierce competition from lower wage countries such as China and Poland, the Netherlands, although still the world's third largest producer (China is number one followed by the United States) is facing some serious threats. The number of growers and prices are steadily dropping. The Dutch mushroom industry faced a similar problem in the 1970's with the arrival of low cost canned mushrooms from China. Mechanisation was the response then. The Made in Transit concept solves the labour problem. Being able to deliver absolute freshness to the consumer eliminates the cost of harvest. Made in Transit can be an intensification strategy -- a way of increasing production -- coupled with market expansion, and lower input costs, such as land and labour. Made in Transit proposes an alternative system of mushroom cultivation imbedded within the distribution network, shifting the role of distribution from slowing down the process of post-harvest deterioration to enabling growth and involving the consumer for harvest at the point of consumption. Objections raised ​Experts, both from academia and from industry have raised valid questions, which simply have been incorporated into my research, and pose further challenges in ongoing research. As an example, one of the first mushroom experts I consulted, Peter Oei in the Netherlands, hypothesised that mushroom bodies are too brittle to stand the vibration of transport while they are growing. This question was later incorporated into the experiment conducted in collaboration with Wageningen University. There, scientist Johan Baars hypothesised that the damage may depend on the stage of development. For example, if we subject the mushrooms to vibration prior to pinning, the breaking and reforming of mycelium strands may take too much energy, leaving not enough for pinhead formation. We also suspect that different species will tolerate vibration differently. The objections posed have been valuable in directing research. Further research ​During my consultation with numerous experts, individuals and groups, discussions led to the formation of a team interested in pursuing the 'Made in Transit' hypothesis, as it coincided with their scientific interests while presenting a cohesive framework and objective. Currently we are in the process of submitting a proposal to continue further research and development at Wageningen University involving six supervisors and three PhD students, including myself. Correspondence with commercial parties has also spawned interest in possible involvement. Although in the context of this thesis, the mushroom application is intended as a realistic and present-day possibility, scientifically it is futuristic. As explained by scientist Johan Baars, "Mushroom cultivation is an art, not a science. We know it involves bacteria but we don't really know how, we know it involves temperature, humidity, but we don't really know why…."​ Cultivation must first become a science before we can rely on the sort of on-demand growth precision required to realise this proposition. The scientific questions posed by the proposition coincide with intentions of the government, industry and academia. As a supply chain concept, 'Made in Transit' anchors this scientific research within a larger framework, within an alternative mode of mushroom cultivation. Agata Jaworska holds a Masters of Design from the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands. This article was adapted from her thesis. She is currently looking for industry partners, scientific researchers and collaborators to make the concept a reality. She can be contacted at jaworska.mail[AT]gmail.com. ​Watch a two minute animation: http://youtube.com/watch?v=oWcOgzNNHlE ​A five minute presentation by Agata: http://youtube.com/watch?v=Oras6CRRWzQ

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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