• Dr. Timothy X. Merritt

Airships Making a Comeback: Solutions for Global Supply Chain Disruptions

Airships will return to the skies once again when the cost of building a modern airship is outweighed by the potential profits that will be realized from its operation. Governments that typically spend billions of dollars on infrastructure, industries that are currently suffering significant losses due to supply chain disruptions, as well as consumers who can’t get the products they demand all have a vested interest in taking another look at this proven technology.

The Hybrid Airship St. Paul flying over bottleneck of cargo ships
Hybrid Airships Require Minimal Infrastructure

Disruptions in Global Supply Chains

When the COVID pandemic began in early 2020, one of the most noticeable impacts was the sudden disappearance of common items from supermarket shelves. I still remember searching for toilet paper and only finding empty aisles. It seemed surreal. How could this be happening in America?


Many of those shortages were alleviated later that summer. However, those shortages were soon replaced by new shortages for all manner of commonly used items. Lumber prices skyrocketed, followed by slowing car sales due to a microchip shortage spurred by a growth in demand for personal electronics (Hill, 2021). Many causes attributed to the disruption of supply chains including; labor shortages, spikes in the Delta variant of COVID, US-China trade conflicts, and economic policies that result in higher inflation levels.


Regardless of the root cause, the impacts are being felt worldwide, and governments, industries, and consumers are all seeking solutions to a massive array of problems.


Microchip Shortage Impacting Auto Industry

One industry that has been especially hard hit is the automotive manufacturing sector. The increased demand for consumer electronics, coupled with a massive backlog in cargo ships waiting to get into ports, truck driver shortages, reductions in railroad capacity reductions, and skyrocketing costs of air freight (Friesen, 2021), are all contributing to a severe curtailment of microchips available to automakers. As a consequence, while manufacturers such as GM and Ford continue to BUILD vehicles, they are not able to COMPLETE them until the required microchips arrive.


Holderith (2021) has startling photographs showing Ford stockpiling thousands of uncompleted vehicles at the Kentucky speedway at a site so large it can be viewed from space. And Stump (2021) explains that the total estimated losses are estimated at $2.5 billion, with no relief expected until at least the second quarter of 2022.


Hybrid Airships as a Solution

Imagine that you were the one facing multi-billion dollar losses that were expected to continue for at least a year, and perhaps even more. Wouldn’t you be interested in considering creative new alternatives to solve the problem? With existing technology, Hybrid Airships, like the Lockheed-Martin LMH-1 described in my novel, will have the capability of transporting twenty tons of cargo around the world in a matter of days, bypassing all of the logistical barriers that currently face the auto industry.


History of Failed Ideas

Ever since the Golden Era of airship aviation reached its zenith over 100 years ago and went into decline following the disastrous wreck of the Hindenburg, there are those who attempt to revive the idea of lighter than air transportation. Every few years, the next “new” idea is floated …only to fail as grim economic realities collide with grandiose visions of great airships once again navigating the skies.


The bottom line is that each individual airship is very expensive to construct; estimates are that a single Lockheed-Martin LMH-1 would cost about forty million dollars. Meanwhile, its twenty-ton cargo capacity is approximately equivalent to the load a single semi tractor-trailer can haul. And the semi only costs between $75,000 to $180,000. There would have to be an enormous economic incentive to develop a hybrid airship viable under these conditions.


Infrastructure Costs – External vs. Internal

The key to understanding the logistical realities is to conceptualize where the true costs lie. A semi-trailer must drive along paved roads constructed by governments using tax dollars. They are, in effect, a subsidy. The same can be said for railroads and airplanes; the host nation's infrastructure costs are all external and subsidized. Even maritime shipping, with access to open seas, still relies upon state-sponsored infrastructure in terms of port facilities. As we are seeing play out globally now, the problem is that these infrastructure networks are fragile and can be prone to disruptions. Doubtless to the horror of CEOs and shareholders, they are learning the hard way just how reliant their organizations are to those vulnerable infrastructures.


Profitable Cargo Routes

In contrast, with a modern airship, nearly all the infrastructure is internal to the ship itself. A microchip manufacturer in Taiwan could load up to twenty tons of microchips into an airship, fly it north along the coast of Japan, past the Kamchatka peninsula, across the Bering Sea into Alaska, drop down into the American Midwest, bypassing the Rocky Mountains and deliver its cargo to a parking lot in Dearborn Michigan. What’s more, it could complete the journey in about a week. On the return trip, the same airship could navigate north, above the notorious ice-roads of Canada, to the Strange Lake rare earth element property near the Quebec-Labrador border and pick up a return cargo of powdered neodymium, terbium, dysprosium, and praseodymium needed in the microchip manufacturing process.


Will Airships make a Comeback?

The answer is that Airships will return to the skies once again when the cost of building a modern airship is outweighed by the potential profits that will be realized from its operation. Governments that typically spend billions of dollars on infrastructure, industries that are currently suffering significant losses due to supply chain disruptions, as well as consumers who can’t get the products they demand all have a vested interest in taking another look at this proven technology. When enough money is at stake, airships become a practical alternative.


References

Friesen, G. (2021). No End In Sight For The COVID-Led Global Supply Chain Disruption. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/garthfriesen/2021/09/03/no-end-in-sight-for-the-covid-led-global-supply-chain-disruption/?sh=6572ba7a3491

Holderith, P. (2021). Stockpile of Unfinished Ford Super Duty Pickups Missing Chips Is Now Visible from Space. The Drive. Retrieved from https://www.thedrive.com/news/40458/thousands-of-unfinished-ford-super-duty-trucks-are-parked-at-kentucky-speedway-due-to-chip-shortage

Lockheed-Martin. Hybrid Airships: The road not needed. Retrieved from https://lockheedmartin.com/content/dam/lockheed-martin/aero/documents/hybridAirship/HybridAirshipLitho.pdf

Sargen, N. (2021). Global supply chain disruptions are spreading, and nobody knows what to do about it. The Hill. Retrieved from https://thehill.com/opinion/international/574861-global-supply-chain-disruptions-are-spreading-and-nobody-knows-what-to

Shaw, M. (2017) Quest Rare Minerals Updates Processing Plan for Strange Lake. Retrieved from https://investingnews.com/daily/resource-investing/critical-metals-investing/rare-earth-investing/quest-rare-minerals-processing-plan-strange-lake/

Stumpf, R. (2021). The Global Microchip Shortage, Explained—and What It Means for Your Next Car Purchase. The Drive. Retrieved from https://www.thedrive.com/tech/40589/the-global-microchip-shortage-explained-and-what-it-means-for-your-next-car-purchase

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