Frédéric Delaval: “We are aiming to recreate local logistics”

E-commerce and the physical service points that enable it to exist are radically redefining urban logistics. Digitalisation, pooling, last kilometre(s), ecological factors: there are many challenges and they are disrupting the distribution chain. To understand the changes that are happening, we spoke with Frédéric Delaval, Director of the Urban Logistics strategic programme for the La Poste Group and Chairman of Urby.

Can you describe your activity in a few words? 

I am Chairman of Urby, a network of companies specialising in urban logistics and in all flows of goods over the first or last kilometre. Our objective is to offer storage and urban delivery services from multiple sites in the city to carriers, couriers, retailers, craftsmen, public authorities, businesses and individuals, using low-emission vehicles and bicycles.

What are the major challenges facing urban logistics today? 

The main challenge today is to support the development of e-commerce, while offering high-level services, with extremely short delivery times. In just a few years, we have gone from a standard D+3 to D+1 lead time. Today, we are seeing the development of same-day and even hourly delivery. The deadlines are extremely short, which entails an overall review of supply chains and the location of stocks, in order to be as close as possible to the person placing the order.

Strict regulations that rightly protect citizens and the environment tend to complicate the delivery of goods. This is a constraint that applies to everyone, and there is an overall awareness of this. The pooling practices that we are trying to roll out are based on a simple observation: studies show that 70% of goods delivered to the city centre are delivered in vans owned by small operators that are between 20 and 25% full. There is a lot of potential for optimisation.

Can you describe this overhaul of the distribution chain? 

In Paris, just after the war, logistics were in the city. Today, the large storage warehouses to supply the metropolis are positioned along the N104, the third ring road in Paris. This implies a lot of transport and complex flow management, further complicated by the densification of the city. Very short delivery times lead to high turnover, traffic, pollution and congestion.

Faced with this phenomenon, we aim to recreate local logistics by returning stocks to the city centre. This means creating sites, storage areas, and having a workforce capable of ensuring distribution.

What are the solutions to enable this repositioning? 

To contain costs and transport goods under the best conditions (regulatory, energy consumption, lead times), we need to develop a dense network over territories. That is the role of distribution platforms which are located at a maximum distance of 3 or 4 km of city centers. These platforms allow all carriers to drop off their goods without entering the city. They leave us to provide the last kilometre and the final delivery. At the same time, vehicles that deliver to the heart of the city also collect products – reverse logistics – products manufactured in the city, or even recyclates – and deliver them to the pooling platforms.

The other part of our business concerns urban logistics points in city centres. They enable local retailers to offer services similar to e-commerce by providing them with storage space, delivery or order preparation services.

On which technologies does urban logistics rely, in terms of vehicles, software and infrastructure? 

Digital integration is fundamental. It makes it possible to anticipate and receive flows, transfer insurance liability, guarantee traceability, push information or facilitate invoicing, etc. It is essential to have TMS (Transport Management Systems).

As for vehicles, the main trend is to reduce emissions. Most of major actors are migrating to  low-emission fleets. This raises many infrastructure issues, particularly in terms of refuelling stations and electric charging points.

We will always need traffic routes. However, it is difficult to say whether goods will be delivered on traditional roads or through specialised channels. As such, the concept of underground robots is an attractive one. Like the underground for passengers, this solution would move goods underground to arrive at delivery stations. In Switzerland, the CST (underground cargo) system is already devising its legal framework! As a similar idea, we can imagine transporting goods by cable. The supraWay project is a way to transport goods in shuttles along a concrete rail…

For the time being, we can only use what already exists. Politics is slowly becoming aware of the mobility issues concerning goods. The ELAN law or the LOM law will force manufacturers to conceive a global supply chain and the infrastructure that goes with it, in consultation with elected representatives. We are at the beginning of the transformation.

How do you imagine the future of urban logistics vehicles to be? 

I’m going to be cautious here. We hear a lot about autonomous vehicles, but I don’t think they will be operational for another 7, 8 or even 10 years. It’s a question of infrastructure. We need extremely powerful communication systems, which do not yet exist on an industrial scale.

On the other hand, we are already seeing the emergence of an alliance between robots and humans. Following trolleys relieve delivery staff of an arduous task. Although not 100% autonomous, they are paired with their operator and can navigate obstacles.

Drones are also well-known sources of development. Through its subsidiary DPD, the La Poste group has developed the first line of parcel deliveries by drone. However, I do not believe that flying drones will be able to supply the city in the short term, for reasons of accuracy, regulation and safety. They are most promising in environments with little human activity, in the mountains or to access islands. Heavy cargo drones are also an interesting concept, along motorways for example!

These solutions require major investment in terms of infrastructure: communication systems, radars, flying drone traffic rights, etc. There is still work to be done.

Returning to sustainable transportation and light mobility is very important. But it is not possible to transport 500kg pallets, furniture or energy by bike. It’s not reasonable to think that everything can be transported by sustainable transport methods. We need to adapt the right resources to the right uses: heavy vehicles for heavy loads, light vehicles for light loads.

What do we do?

The VINCI Group created Leonard to tackle the challenges posed by the transformation of regions and lifestyles. Our goal is to unite a community of key stakeholders in order to build the city of the future together.