In half a century, DHL has grown from an idea into a leading global logistics company. The world it serves looks very different too.

During 1969, NASA launched four Saturn V rockets from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The culmination of the Apollo program, the third and fourth of those missions delivered people to the surface of the moon for the first time in history. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Adrian Dalsey, Larry Hillblom and Robert Lynn began making deliveries of their own, establishing a small courier business to ship legal documents from San Francisco to Honolulu.

Manned flights to the moon to came to an end in 1972, as NASA shifted resources to other projects, such as the Skylab space station. No human has since been back to the lunar surface. DHL, the company founded by Dalsey, Hillblom and Lynn, is now part of the Deutsche Post DHL Group, a €61 billion business with around 550,000 employees in 220 countries and territories worldwide.

The company will still ship documents from San Francisco to Honolulu, but the breadth and scope of its activities has expanded beyond recognition. Today, DHL logistics professionals manage millions of shipments every year, involving the transport of everything from consumer e-commerce orders between China and Europe to 250-metric-ton chemical manufacturing equipment destined for construction projects in the U.S. Here’s how the last 50 years unfolded in global logistics and in the wider world.

The oil crisis
In 1973, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embargoed oil exports to a number of countries, including Japan, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. Their action caused the price of a barrel of oil to quadruple, from $3 to more than $12. While the embargo only ran for six months, oil prices never returned to pre-crisis levels, and the shock spurred developments in fuel-efficiency, alternative energy sources and the search for new sources of oil around the world.

Dawn of the data age
In 1974, a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum sold at a supermarket in Troy, Ohio, became the first product to check out using the now ubiquitous Uniform Product Code, or barcode. That technology was a significant step in the transition from paper-based to digital record- keeping and information exchange. A year later, the Transportation Data Coordinating Committee released the first standards for Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), a system that allowed companies, suppliers and logistics providers to share orders and shipping manifests over computer networks.

A healthier world
In 1979 the World Health Organization announced that smallpox had finally been eradicated. The disease, which was fatal in around 30% of cases, was eliminated by a worldwide vaccination and containment program that ran for two decades. Eliminating smallpox was a logistical as well as a medical achievement, requiring coordinated effort from thousands of healthcare workers and hundreds of governments and international agencies. During the final stages of the campaign around 200 million doses of vaccine were distributed each year, often to remote locations in Africa and Asia.

Delivering effective healthcare to billions of people around the world is still creating demands for sophisticated logistics capabilities. The smallpox vaccine could be freeze-dried, making it easier to transport. Many other medicines, especially the new generation of biopharmaceutical products, have short shelf lives and require careful temperature control during handling and transportation.

People of the planet
In 1987, the world population exceeded 5 billion for the first time. Rapid population growth has been a defining feature of the past five decades: 

The number of people on Earth has more than doubled since 1969, from 3.6 billion to an estimated 7.7 billion today.

The distribution of humanity around the world is also changing. The population of the U.S. reached 200 million in 1967, for example, and at the beginning of the 1970s there was no country with more than one billion people. China passed that watershed in 1982, with India following in 2000. The population of both countries now exceeds 1.3 billion. By 2010, more than half of Earth’s inhabitants were city dwellers. Today, the rate of global population growth is slowing down, with better education, healthcare and economic prospects in many countries leading to smaller families.

Building the web
In 1990 Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist working at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, devised a system that allowed computers to share text, images and other resources across the internet. It was his innovation that paved the way for the seamless, user-friendly connectivity that we take for granted today. And while the resources and services now available on the World Wide Web are infinitely more sophisticated than the simple, static pages that Berners-Lee produced, they still use many of the same fundamental technologies.

Berners-Lee and colleagues at CERN released the code for the first web browser and web server into the public domain in 1993, unleashing a wave of innovation that has been building momentum ever since. Many of the businesses that have gone on to disrupt entire industries were established in the early years of the web: Amazon in 1994, for example, and Google in 1998. Today, more than half the world’s population has access to the internet.

Trading standards
The 50 years after the end of World War II saw rapid expansion in global trade, driven by the widely held belief that closer economic ties between countries would help to preserve peace and lift people out of poverty. In 1994, international trade underwent its biggest transformation in decades: the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO). While the forerunner of the WTO – the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) – governed trade in goods, the new organization had a greatly expanded remit, including trade in services and intellectual property. Today, 164 members of the WTO are responsible for 98% of world trade. A further 22 countries are in negotiations to join the organization.

Mapping the human genome
In 2003 an international consortium of 20 research institutions announced that it had completed a 13-year effort to sequence the 3.3 billion base pairs that make Inup the DNA of a human being. The $2.7 billion Human Genome Project remains the largest collaborative research effort ever undertaken in the field of life sciences. A greater understanding of the behavior and influence of genes is unlocking new insights in a wide range of fields from archaeology and forensics to medicine. Technologies for the analysis of DNA have progressed extremely rapidly in recent years, making genome sequencing much faster, easier and cheaper.
The Human Genome Project was a mosaic, combining information from multiple individuals, but by 2007 automated sequencing technology allowed the full genome of a single individual to be mapped for the first time. A project now underway in the U.K. aims to map the genomes of 100,000 people in an effort to identify the genetic factors that underpin a variety of rare diseases.

Destiny calling
By the turn of the 20th century, many people in rich countries owned a mobile telephone, and hand- held computers were becoming powerful and useful enough for some enthusiasts to abandon paper diaries in favor of an electronic gadget.

Industry observers predicted a “convergence” of the two categories of device. Apple wasn’t the first company to bring such a product to market, but a combination of smart industrial design, usability and effective marketing meant the 2007 iPhone came to define the category. Today, more than 90% of adults worldwide own a mobile phone, and the vast majority of those devices are smartphones. In developing regions, smartphones have become the primary means of internet access for millions of people, with ownership levels exceeding those of the developed world.

Coping with the aftermath
In 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Japan caused tsunami waves that flooded land up to 10 kilometers inland from the Pacific coast of Tohoku. The disaster killed around 16,000 people, destroyed tens of thousands of buildings and led to a partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.
The impact of the tragedy reverberated far beyond Japan. In the ensuing months, companies in Europe and the U.S. faced shortages of critical components caused by the destruction of manufacturing facilities in the affected area. Some of those organizations had no idea that their supply chains depended upon products or materials that came from affected suppliers.

SMART CALL (left): Smartphones have become the primary means of internet access; ALMOST HUMAN (right): AI and robotics are busy transforming business and society.

The Tohoku earthquake was not unique in its impact on global supply chains. Later in 2011, for example, flooding in Thailand affected around a quarter of the world’s hard disk drive production, leading to shortages and prices rises that lasted for two years. These events pushed supply chain risk to the top of corporate agendas, with companies acknowledging a significant unintended consequence of globalization.

The silicon brain
The idea of a machine that can think like a person is older than the computer itself. Since the 1960s, Computer scientists have been experimenting with algorithms that mimic human capacity to solve complex problems. Their ideas have now moved decisively from the laboratory into the mainstream. Google’s DeepMind Artificial Intelligence (AI) unit made headlines in 2016 when it built a program that beat world champion Lee Sedol at the game of Go, once thought too complex for a computer to master.
Computers are outperforming humans in plenty of other areas too: reading the number plates of speeding vehicles or putting names to faces, for example. As AI technologies grow ever more capable, they are becoming equally controversial. Some see them as a powerful tool that will help to address many challenges in business and society. Others worry about their potential impact on jobs, security and privacy.  — Jonathan Ward

Published: September 2019

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