By Paul Scott Abbott
A different kind of ghost town is about to rise from the desert in the American West, to be inhabited not by restless spirits of defeated gunslingers, but rather by the likes of experimental robots.
And, as plans advance for development of an expansive US$1 billion test city in the New Mexico desert, opportunities – and challenges – abound for movers of a broad spectrum of project cargoes.
“With something that’s this big, the success is really going to come down to logistics,” said Robert H. Brumley, senior managing director of Washington-based Marble Arch Partners LLC, the private technology development firm creating the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation, or CITE.
To cover 33 square miles on either side of Interstate 10 about 30 miles west of Las Cruces, New Mexico, the CITE City Labs project will replicate an ultra-high-tech American city with 35,000 residents. But plans call for the test city to be unpopulated aboveground, except for robots.
“To fully appreciate the scale and scope of the project, thus its transportation needs, one must consider the challenges and opportunities of building sufficient infrastructure and underlying operating systems to support a typical American city of 35,000 – from scratch: Huge,” said Brumley, an attorney and retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who has been engaged with the project since it began being discussed in 2010.
Brumley has extensive experience with leading-edge ventures. He served as chief legal officer and senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Commerce in the Reagan administration, chairing the policy group that privatized commercial space transportation. In the first decade of the 21st century, he was president and CEO of TerreStar Corp., a pioneer in mobile satellite and ancillary terrestrial telecommunications systems that is now part of Dish Network.
Yet even Brumley is impressed with the immensity of what is to be the world’s largest-scale testing and evaluation center, calling CITE “the Manhattan Project being built in the New Mexico desert.”
“Nothing has been built in the U.S. of this scale and scope since the Manhattan Project during World War II,” Brumley said.
Whereas the Manhattan Project, headquartered in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, with the New Mexico desert among test sites, produced the first nuclear weapons, the stated intent of CITE is to provide testing grounds for a vast array of innovative technologies from the world’s public laboratories, universities and the private sector.
“We’re literally building an American city right out of the desert,” Brumley said. “That’s a lot of steel, a lot of houses, a lot of plumbing. The size of the project is really the challenge.”
Marble Arch Partners, known until September 2016 as Pegasus Global Holdings LLC, has already lined up more than 300 vendors registered to bid on provision of goods and services for CITE, according to Brumley. He said three prime contractors are in the fold – one each for architecture and engineering, design-build construction, and operations and maintenance – but he declined to name the companies for “proprietary” reasons.
An industry day, delineating opportunities related to CITE, is slated to be held some time late in the second quarter of 2017, with plans to award initial contracts for roadwork and ground clearing – and for cargo to begin moving into the CITE site – in the third quarter.
Related Content: Center For Innovation Testing And Evaluation
Core infrastructure construction activities, employing as many as 4,000 workers, are targeted to span four or more years, at a cost of about US$600 million, with about US$40 million per year for 10 succeeding years anticipated to go into additional infrastructure, according to Brumley, hence the US$1 billion project figure quoted by New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
In addition to the test city itself, plus underground lab facilities, plans call for a 200,000-square-foot research center, built to platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards of the U.S. Green Building Council, to serve as the focal point for public visitation and participation with the City Labs.
“Since virtually everything must be located, transported, delivered, built, installed and interconnected, all raw and finished materials, including construction equipment, cranes, earth movers, technology, appliances and building materials, must be brought into the area,” Brumley said.
While details such as whether to erect an on-site concrete batching plant or bring materials to CITE when and as needed have yet to be worked out, Brumley said a critical element of logistics will most certainly involve cost effectively getting cargoes to the site.
Direct property access is to come via an improved service road connecting to a cloverleaf on-off ramp to be built along I-10, according to Brumley. He noted that a rail spur off the Union Pacific Railroad mainline comes within 3 miles of the location, which is about 45 miles via rail or back roads or 75 miles via major highways northwest of the UP’s intermodal hub in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Also, international airports at Las Cruces and El Paso, Texas, are, respectively, about 30 miles and 85 miles away from the CITE site. Foreign-Trade Zone No. 197 sites adjoin the UP intermodal hub and the Las Cruces airport.
Asked his thoughts by Breakbulk, Bob Collins, senior director of professional development at APICS, the Chicago-based global supply chain education organization founded in 1957 as the American Production and Inventory Control Society, said road and rail links will be crucial – and may be augmented by more futuristic transport means.
“Since there is no current infrastructure, developing roads from the highway and the rail line spur will be among the first tasks,” said Collins, who has more than 25 years of experience as a supply chain practitioner and consultant. “However, although larger in scope and more remote, the logistics are not that different from building a new subdivision from scratch.”
Collins suggested that leading-edge transportation technologies could also come into play.
“What could make this project more interesting would be to use new technology out of the gate,” he said. “Since it’s in a remote area, driverless vehicles could be used for deliveries, which could save cost and time. Additionally, drones could make deliveries – and eventually larger drones capable of carrying more weight could be able to deliver supplies for construction projects like this, too. Bottom line: This area is going to be a test bed for futuristic technologies, so it’s well worth utilizing some of the existing, innovative tech we have now to maximize efficiency.”
Basics Remain Vital
Nonetheless, from a logistics perspective, it is important not to forget the fundamentals, cautioned Collins.
“This project might be the height of innovation, but effective forecasting, planning and inventory management still need to be at the forefront,” he said. “Ensuring your supply chain team is prepared and educated so they can execute a modern, smart supply chain strategy is a key piece of preparation.”
Collins said he sees benefits to starting with a proverbial blank canvas.
“A big advantage is there is no burden of old infrastructure that may not fit today’s regulations or corporate social responsibility requirements,” he said. “A city built from scratch is an amazing opportunity to get things right – from sourcing of materials, to worker safety, to climate protection.”
In fact, Brumley concurred that the CITE project is likely to furnish opportunities to deploy transportation innovations.
Brumley said that, in addition to alternative power generation, smart-grid, telecommunications and security infrastructure, intelligent transportation systems are apt to be tested at the CITE site.
He said inquiries already have been received from entities looking at automated and manned lighter-than-air ships for moving cargo, unmanned trucks and trash removal vehicles, and robotic freight-moving systems.
“New methods and vehicles,” Brumley concluded, “will all be candidates for testing.”
A veteran transportation writer for the past 40 years, U.S.-based Paul Scott Abbott specializes in maritime topics.
Photo credit: Marble Arch Partners
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