CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
October 22, 2018
Forward Thinking

Pipe dream?

An engineering physicist at the University of Perugia in Italy has an idea about how to use pneumatic pipes to move freight.

We've written over the years about a variety of logistics innovations, but here's one we hadn't heard until now. Franco Cotana, an engineering physicist at the University of Perugia in Italy, has an idea about how to use pneumatic pipes to move freight.

Pneumatic tubes (once used extensively in office buildings and still used by many banks) rely on compressed air to move plastic and rubber capsules filled with deposit slips and such between tellers and customers at drive-up windows. As reported in the Jan. 8, 2011, issue of The Economist, Cotana believes a modern variation of those pneumatic tubes might be used to move freight. Back in 2003, Dr. Cotana patented a version of the idea called "Pipenet." Instead of using air, the system would move goods through two-foot-wide (60 cm) metal tubes using magnetic fields created by specialized motors. The magnetic fields would levitate capsules holding goods and propel them forward. The concept also makes use of air pumps to create a partial vacuum to reduce resistance. Shipments would be routed by radio transponders in each capsule.

Cotana expects the capsules could carry up to 110 pounds (50 kg) of goods at up to 930 miles (1,500 km) per hour.

Ideas for using magnetic levitation have been with us for some time. As The Economist points out, the highspeed rail line between Shanghai and its airport makes use of the principle. But it is pricey. Cotana's insight: reduce the size of what you're moving, and the cost of the technology drops considerably. In addition, the tubes could be built along existing rail and road rights of way. He estimates construction costs could be kept under US $5 million per mile. At that price, Cotana's team estimates, a network it conceived for Perugia would pay a return on its investment inside of seven years. And Pipenet has already drawn interest from researchers at China's Tongi University.

Will there come a day when workers on the shipping dock drop an e-commerce order into a tube shortly after the customer clicks "buy" so it pops up at the customer's door within a couple of hours? Not anytime soon. But that sure would give new meaning to cycle time.

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