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History of logistics

Logistics goes back a long way. The invention of the wheel allowed people to transport items between communities. Initially those communities will have grown and eaten their own food. With the introduction of transport, villages were able to trade with other villages and this is how global trade started.

The term logistics however was mainly used within the military.

  • Logistics is first mentioned in Sun Tzu’s Art of War - 500 BC. “The line between disorder and order lies in logistics…”
  • Alexander the Great produced a logistics system to support troops rather than rely on living off the land
  • Romans introduced supply lines and supply depots at 30 km intervals (one day’s march)
  • Napoleon planned his logistics campaigns well and logistics and supply was a top priority. “The amateurs discuss tactics: the professionals discuss logistics.”
  • “Behind every great leader there was an even greater logistician.”  - M. Cox
  • However Napoleon and Hitler fell foul of supply chains which became too long causing a great deal of disruption and ultimately – failure. Supply lines were always a target for enemy forces

The map below shows the main trade routes between China and Europe. They were called the Silk Road although other products were also moved such as spices and food products. These routes were also responsible for the spread of disease across the continents.

Map showing the main trade routes between China and Europe, called the Silk Road Silk Road map

In the early days, as can be seen on the above map, goods were moved by road and also by sea on certain trade routes.

  • Watch this short clip from the BBC series ‘Silk Road’. Here the presenter, Dr Sam Willis, tells the story how Iranian Shah Abbas developed the idea and network of 999 ‘Caravanserai’, where travelling merchants could find rest and secure storage for their commerce and produce on long journeys on the Silk Road.

Road movements from China to Europe were then superseded by sea. Today, depending on the urgency of the shipment, goods travel by :

  • Sea 30 – 35 days
  • Rail 16 – 20 days
  • Air 1 - 3 days

The quicker the transit time the more expensive it becomes.

Today China has an initiative called ‘One Belt, One Road’ which was launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, to focus on improving and creating new trading routes, links and business opportunities with China, passing through over 60 countries along the way, across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

This is an update on the Chinese “One belt, One Road” initiative, and this video on the first freight train from China arriving in London.

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This article is from the free online course:

Supply Chains in Practice: How Things Get to You

The University of Warwick

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