Collaborative "speed dating" distribution sessions between retailers, their suppliers and logistics providers, set up as part of an industry-wide project, could help to remove up to 15,000 loads a year from Britain's roads.
The sessions, focusing on ambient or chilled and frozen networks, have brought together more than 20 retailers, suppliers and their third-party logistics providers to discuss the opportunities for collaboration. To date, they have identified potential for partnerships that would cut two million vehicle miles a year.
The events, which focus on "trunking" or larger deliveries between suppliers and retailers, began last year under Efficient Consumer Response's (ECR's) Collaborative Green Distribution initiative. They will continue this year and results are expected at the end of the year.
"These sessions, known as 'speed dating', reveal potential savings equivalent to taking 10,000-15,000 loads a year off the road," says Gavin Chappell, co-chairman of the ECR's Collaborative Green Distribution initiative.
They provide a forum for companies to talk about their transport networks and, where they have empty or less than full vehicles, they can identify others with whom they could collaborate, says Darran Watkins, IGD senior business analyst for the supply chain.
"One company could deliver goods or collect goods on behalf of another and so, overall, you get a fuller vehicle and potentially fewer vehicles," he adds.
However, it is recognised there are significant hurdles to be overcome before such collaborative benefits can accrue.
These include the need for a standard commercial framework and adequate insurance.
Chappell says: "There are unique obstacles, such as how to manage delivering one company's products from another company's vehicle and how to ensure that deliveries on shared vehicles can still be made at the most efficient times"
Watkins adds: "We have identified some of the big challenges to collaboration on transport. For example different temperature regimes, different types of vehicle, different service level constraints, and so on. So there are lots operational issues that make it quite challenging." To overcome these potential barriers a tool kit of solutions is being developed this year by ECR UK.
In an example of collaboration cited in ECR UK's Collaborative Green Distribution Blue Book just published, transport provider Eddie Stobart worked with Coca-Cola Enterprises, adapting some aspects of their vehicles and warehousing to fill otherwise empty vehicles. As a result, 500,000 empty vehicle miles have been avoided since March 2004.
Two other collaborative distribution modelling projects, involving specialist logistics software supplier, Paragon Software Systems, which did the high-level number crunching, have also been carried out by ECR UK: one in London and the other in northern Scotland. While the latter did reveal benefits, the one in London proved disappointing, mainly because of the peculiarities and complexities of supplying stores in the capital.
The Scottish study - Shared Deliveries to Far Flung Places - found that five companies could reduce vehicle miles by 40% if they collaborated closely on transport and distribution networks.
Additional practical trials will be undertaken over the next few months, and further studies are likely to be undertaken in other, more remote, parts of Britain, such as the South West and Wales.