An interesting story and comment from Martin Lariviere at Kellogg school. The container certainly increased the potential for efficiency by standardizing the process batch in the supply chain. As Martin points out, ports and other carriers are hung up on high utilization of their expensive capital facilities, and this limits the flexibility required for risk reduction. Problem is, who will pay for an expensive facility which will be idle a lot as a buffer for risk.
Originally posted on The Operations Room:
A few months ago we had a post about how shipping containers have impacted supply chains and global trade. Today we have a longer piece from Nautilus on the history of shipping containers as well as some current trends in global shipping (The Box That Built the Modern World, Jul 25). I have three take aways from reading the article. First, everyone should read The Box by Marc Levinson because (a) it’s a good book and (b) it seems that no one can write about containerized shipping without more-or-less admitting that Mr. Levinson saved them a lot of effort in researching the topic.
The second point is that the article provides a nice illustration of how slapping stuff in containers can dramatically drive down shipping costs.
To get a sense of how the system works, imagine one of the containers aboard the Hong Kong Express, which is owned by German shipping giant Hapag-Lloyd. Asked to trace a product through a typical container voyage, Hapag-Lloyd spokesman Rainer Horn suggests a T-shirt sewn at a factory near Beijing, the kind you might buy at H&M.
Tagged, folded, and boxed, the T-shirt would be “stuffed” into a container with 33,999 identical shirts at the factory. Once sealed with a plastic tag and listed on a computerized manifest, the merchandise could pass through nearly three dozen steps before arriving at a discount clothing retailer’s distribution center near Munich. There’s the trucker who moves the box to a waiting ship in Xinjiang, the feeder ship that moves it to Singapore to be loaded onto a bigger Europe-bound freighter, the crane operator in Hamburg, customs officials, train engineers, and more.
Yet the container’s uniformity smooths each step of the way. Trucks and trains are fitted to haul the identical boxes; cranes are designed to lift the same thing over and over. The total time in transit for a typical box from a Chinese factory to a customer in Europe might be as little as 35 days. Cost per shirt? “Less than one U.S. cent,” Horn says. “It doesn’t matter anymore where you produce something now, because transport costs aren’t important.”