03 August 2011

The Box

The author is Marc Levinson and the subtitle is How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.

Ships, trains, trucks. Giant computer-controlled cranes. Operations research. This book is pure nerd porn.

Marc Levinson documents the history and the rise of standardized shipping containers in this astonishingly interesting book. Today, 40-foot shipping containers full of stuff are routinely sent from factories to warehouses without being opened in transit, even as they are loaded from truck to train to ship and back to train to truck. Before the 1950's, no one implemented seamless intermodal transport: at a dock, for example, longshoremen would unload cargo from a truck or train, piece by piece, and put it in a warehouse, then repack it again into the hold of a ship. This process was slow, labor-intensive, liable to be interrupted by strikes, and made the goods prone to damage and theft. A 1959 report estimated that the cost of shipping some commodities accounted for 25%(!) of the sticker price. Shipping containers and integrated shipping changed all this. You ever wonder why you don't hear much about dockworkers and longshoremen these days? It's because docks don't actually need very many of them anymore.

Levinson covers the complex web of economic, regulatory, and standardization challenges that faced shipping container proponents. But he only hints at the real shipping revolution: manufacturers that adopted shipping containers actually didn't obtain substantial savings until they also retooled their businesses to use containers end-to-end and to think of fast and reliable shipping as something they could count on. Hence developments like just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing and reduced inventory costs (I am now on the hunt for some reading material on these subjects).

Recommended.

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