TransDevelopment Encourages Strategic Thinking For Facilities

China’s auto industry, ports and logistics professionals will be well-served to study the experience of their counterparts on the West Coast of North America, as strategies emerge for the global export of finished vehicles. That was a key message Bill Robbins, principal and co-founder of TransDevelopment, delivered in May during the Autologistics Asia 2005 conference held in Shanghai.

Robbins spoke on a panel addressing Pacific Rim finished vehicle logistics. He also attended the event to assist the Port of Portland and the Port of Vancouver USA to promote the new Pacific Northwest Automotive Gateway initiative (LINK).

“Over time, ports throughout China will experience shifts in their capability and commitment to handle automobiles,” said Robbins. “Land value, construction costs, proximity to assembly plants and available transportation infrastructure will be key criteria to determine optimal distribution center locations. But, as experienced throughout North America and Europe, an even greater factor will be the income generated from competing port operations. Overall, these variables combine to influence the viability and availability of port-based automotive distribution centers.”

The TransDevelopment executive said there are valuable lessons to be learned from the evolution of West Coast ports and how the growth of imported vehicles in North America shaped the development of vehicle distribution facilities and operations. Robbins emphasized the importance of industry collaboration and careful consideration of available infrastructure at both the originating and terminating ports.

“By the mid-1980s, a new generation of dedicated port facilities emerged to accommodate the rapid growth in imported vehicles – especially those originating from assembly plants in Asia,” he said. “Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach dedicated large tracts of valuable port real estate to the receipt, homologation, processing and outbound distribution of autos.”

Later, the subsequent growth of imported containerized cargo put serious pressure on automotive import distribution operations, said Robbins. Today, most of the activity at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach revolves around the international container business. “Justifications aside, it is now a fact that there is little room for finished vehicles at these mega ports,” he said.

Automobile manufacturers have taken steps to move their vehicle importing operations away from congested ports in Southern California to smaller gateways that are interested in developing facilities and programs for finished vehicles.

Robbins said that there are good alternatives for manufacturers to distribute vehicles through those ports. And those gateways are excellent candidates for future vehicle exports from China. He cited, as examples, how the Ports of Hueneme, California, and Richmond, California, have developed specialized facilities to attract car importers.

The Columbia River remains another good choice for importers looking for a partner to distribute finished vehicles. “Over the past 20 years, the Port of Portland, Oregon, and the Port of Vancouver, Washington, have steadily grown in their capability to handle automotive imports,” said Robbins. “Plentiful land, deep-water berthing capabilities, excellent truck transportation routes, and access from competing Western U.S. railroads have created an ideal location for automotive processing and distribution.”

Robbins encouraged the conference attendees to follow industry best practices and to foster collaboration when they develop automotive distribution terminals — either at origin or destination ports. He reviewed some of the best practices pioneered by TransDevelopment over the last 18 years. These included design and operational features related to site grading and drainage, facility security, vehicle handling, information systems, rail distribution and vehicle processing port facilities.

“Clearly, each country, each port, each facility and certainly each manufacturer has its own set of variables that will dictate the best set of decisions,” he concluded. “After two decades in this industry, our experience tells us that the challenges and the opportunities we all face in implementing finished vehicle distribution strategies are far more similar than they are different.

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