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Connecting the Dots and Dashes: The Evolution of Communications in Australian Logistics.

by Andrew Fanner,
Dec 13, 2023
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From hand-written bills of lading and cargo manifests to the zeroes and ones of the digital age, logistics communications in Australia have come a long way.

In the vast, unpredictable and dynamic landscape of Australia, effective communication has always been the driving force behind success in logistics. From the days of handwritten manifests to the era of real-time tracking and digital networks, the evolution of communication within logistics has transformed the way goods move to, and from Australia and across the continent. 

In this blog post, we will embark on a journey through time to explore the history and evolution of communications in Australia’s logistics industry.

The Early Days: Handwritten Manifests and Telegraphs.

From its inception as a colony in the 18th century, Australia has relied on cargo arriving from overseas. Indeed, during the first few years of its existence, the fledgling city of Sydney came close to starving when ships failed to arrive with stores, or the goods that they brought weren’t those that had been ordered. 

This was partly due to poor communication. The turnaround time for a voyage from Australia to England and back was at least a year. So by the time a ship arrived back in Sydney Cove with the cargo that had been ordered, demand had shifted, seasons had changed and a new set of goods may have been required.   

The Era of Manifests

In the early 19th century, logistics in Australia relied on handwritten manifests. These paper documents detailed cargo, destinations, and other crucial information. Manifests were transported alongside goods and served as essential communication and invoicing tools among the various parties involved in transportation.

The Telegraph Revolution

The introduction of the telegraph in Australia in the mid-1800s marked a significant milestone. It allowed rapid long-distance communication, reducing reliance on physical manifests. Telegraphs facilitated coordination between ports, warehouses, and transportation providers. 

Where orders had once taken months to reach England, now they could be transmitted across the globe in just a few hours. Just as crucially, news about harvests, prices, market trends, supply chain issues (such as wars) and customer demands could be sent and received in time for cargoes to be amended or replaced. 

The Rise of Telecommunications: Telephones and Radio

Fast forward to the early 20th century. The advent of telephones — and later, radio communication —  meant that many of the more isolated parts of Australia could now be connected to the world’s supply chains more effectively and efficiently.

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Telephones Transcending Distances

As telecommunication technology advanced, telephones became a vital tool for logistics communication. Businesses could now place orders, check shipment statuses, and coordinate logistics activities over long distances with ease. Telephones bridged wide geographical gaps and accelerated decision-making.

Radio Communication

In the second decade of the 1900s, radio communication brought about another revolution in logistics communication. It enabled real-time updates on weather conditions, navigation instructions, and coordination with ships at sea. Radio-equipped vehicles improved tracking and coordination of transportation. 

Radio sets in isolated stations could be used to order everything from an RM Williams stock saddle to a pair of elastic-sided riding boots from Burns Philp in Normanton. Wool prices could be radioed from the city wool stores after every sale and smoko for the shearers ordered from the cookshop every morning. Radio sets in trucks could be used to monitor the progress of convoys, initiate breakdown rescues and coordinate driver assignment. 

The Digital Revolution: Fax Machines and Early Computers

Technology advances rapidly in the communications world. By the mid to late 20th century, electronic communications had all but replaced the traditional paper-based methods of ordering, stock control, dispatch and invoicing.

Fax Machines and Paperless Communication

The introduction of fax machines in the logistics industry in the mid-20th century heralded the era of paperless communication. Businesses could now transmit documents electronically, reducing the reliance on physical paperwork and expediting processes.

By the way, did you know that the fax machine was invented by Scottish inventor Alexander Bain way back in 1843? His invention allowed for the transmission of images and handwritten or printed documents over long distances through telegraph lines. Although early fax machines were quite different from the ones we are familiar with today, Bain’s groundbreaking work laid the foundation for the development of modern fax technology, which became a staple of communication in the logistics world for many years.

Early Computers and Data Processing

The adoption of early computer systems in logistics brought about data processing capabilities. These systems could handle inventory management, order processing, and tracking more efficiently. Logistics companies began to invest in computerised solutions to streamline operations.

The Internet Era: Email, EDI, and Online Tracking

It’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t rely on email, the internet and smart devices. But the truth is, in just over two decades, these systems have become ubiquitous in the logistics game. Long gone are the paper order days of do-it-yourself operators like Tom Kruse, who delivered supplies to Birdsville in his trusty Leyland truck. These days, goods and services are just a few clicks of a keypad away. 

The Email Revolution

With the rise of the internet in the late 20th century, email became the go-to communication tool. Logistics businesses could exchange information, invoices, and documents seamlessly, improving efficiency and reducing delays caused by traditional mail.

Companies could also use email to keep their clients up to date with new developments, use them for market research and customer reviews and generate automated workflows to send targeted emails to different segments of their customer base.

Electronic Data Interchange (EDI)

EDI systems emerged, enabling standardised electronic data exchange between logistics partners. EDI has streamlined order processing, invoicing, and inventory management, reducing manual data entry errors.

Online Tracking and Visibility

The internet paved the way for real-time tracking and visibility. Customers and logistics providers can now monitor shipments’ progress, ensuring transparency and providing opportunities for proactive issue resolution.

Today and Beyond: Mobile Apps, IoT, and AI

The road ahead is bright in the logistics field. The simplicity and reliability of logistics software, and the devices that it operates on, point toward exciting times to come.

Mobile Apps for Logistics

Mobile applications have become indispensable for logistics communication. Drivers and field personnel use apps for route optimisation, real-time tracking, and digital proof of delivery. Customers can access shipment information on their smartphones.

Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT devices provide real-time data on vehicle conditions, temperature, and location. IoT enhances supply chain visibility and enables predictive maintenance, improving logistics efficiency.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Automation

AI-driven solutions analyse logistics data to optimise routes, predict demand, and manage inventory. Automation streamlines processes, reducing human error and increasing efficiency.

From Dots and Dashes to Zeroes and Ones.

We’ve come a long way from the days when bills of lading, order dockets and cargo manifests were hand-written in ink on thick paper. The history of communications in Australia’s logistics industry is a testament to the industry’s adaptability. From handwritten manifests to the digital age of AI and IoT, logistics communication has evolved to meet the demands of a rapidly changing landscape. 

Of course, seamless communication is more critical today than ever, as logistics providers strive to meet the demands of e-commerce, sustainability, and customer expectations. But as comms technology continues to advance, the logistics industry in Australia will remain at the forefront, harnessing the power of communication to drive efficiency and deliver goods to and across the diverse landscapes and cities of our continent.

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