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OM in the News: From Navy Oil Tankers to Amazon’s Diapers

November 27, 2013
8 ships returning to Caroline Islands anchorage, 1944

8 ships returning to Caroline Islands anchorage, 1944

Amazon’s online diaper sales and the U.S. Navy’s refueling protocol for World War II appear unrelated and worlds apart. Nevertheless, they are both answers to an identical logistics problem: how can an organization shorten the time between a customer’s order and a supplier’s response?

Amazon is seeking a way to decrease its response time to online buyers. In the case of diapers, this means encouraging a supplier such as P&G to relocate its operations adjacent to Amazon’s warehouses. With co-location, both firms presumably can reduce their shipping costs, better manage their inventories, and speed up deliveries.

The Navy experienced a similar logistics problem during World War II, writes The Wall Street Journal (Nov.25, 2013). In the early months of the war, the Pacific fleet engaged in hit-and-run tactics; it had to return to Pearl Harbor, where its oil supply tanks were located. When the Navy launched a 1943 offensive in the central Pacific, the geographical distance between consumer (fleet) and supplier (Hawaii) widened. Refueling consumed a precious commodity—time.

One  logistic solution: seize an enemy-held island, convert the island into an advanced base and construct oil storage facilities for the fleet. That worked, but as the Navy accelerated its offensive, it outran the advanced base network. By 1944, the Navy introduced floating bases at Pacific anchorages. Commercial tankers delivered fuel oil to the anchorage, storing oil in barges. A gap, though, between oil demand and supply still persisted.

Then the Navy turned logistics on its head, dispatching 36 oilers to meet carrier task force units at prearranged locations in the forward area. Oilers now refueled fleet units on the move in “underway replenishment.” The results were dramatic. A carrier task force could remain free from a fixed base for 3 months. Fleet Admiral Nimitz termed the Pacific just-in-time supply chain as his “secret weapon.” Naval historians would describe Nimitz’s logistic plan as a “fleet within a fleet.” Amazon’s co-location has been called a “plant within a plant.”

Classroom discussion questions:

1. How is co-location used in the auto industry?

2. What are the supply chain problems for the US military in the Afganistan war?

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Supply Chain Management Research

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