Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Book Review: The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

"On April 26, 1956, a crane lifted fifty-eight aluminum truck bodies aboard an aging tanker ship moored in Newark, New Jersey. Five days later, the Ideal-X sailed into Houston, where fifty-eight trucks waited to take on the metal boxes and haul them to their destinations. Such was the beginning of a revolution."

Opening paragraph of "The Box"

You see them everywhere: corrugated steel boxes hauled by trucks on the Interstates or stacked like blocks on train flatcars. Used ones, no longer sea- or road-worthy, become storage sheds for Boy Scout troops or youth sports or turned into snack bars. In my area, it's not uncommon to see them parked out on the street.

Shipping containers are ubiquitous and we don't think about them any more. But as Marc Levinson points out in The Box, the shipping container revolution was a long time coming. When it did, it not only changed local economies, it changed the global one as well.

Malcom McLean, the patron saint of container shipping, started out as a trucker. His experience brought the understanding that the shipment of goods could be faster, easier, and cheaper if cargo didn't have to be loaded piece by piece into a truck, unloaded, stowed piece by piece into a ship, unloaded, reloaded into a truck, and unloaded at the destination--piece by piece. Why not load the cargo into a truck body, load the truck body into a ship, and then unload it right to the back of a truck at destination?

As Mr. Levinson shows, that simple vision was, in fact, not quite so simple. The transportation industry--rail, water, and trucking--were capital intensive, so were not about to invest a lot of money on an idea. There was a lot of resitance on the part of the unions--Longshore (the ILA and the ILWU) and the warehousemen and drivers (Teamsters). Ports had to be redesigned and had to invest in cranes capable of lifting the loaded boxes out of the vessel holds. Manufacturers had to learn how to consolidate orders into container-load size lots. End users had to learn to order their parts the same way.

While Mr. McLean was experimenting on the East Coast, Matson Navigation Company was doing their own research out West. More methodical than McLean, Matson studied and analyzed the best size of container to ship canned pineapple from the Philippines most efficiently. Instead of using ship cranes to load and unload containers (McLean's solution), Matson decided that shoreside cranes were more efficient. While McLean's containers were 35' long--the maximum size of a truck body at the time--Matson found 24' containers more efficient for their trade lane. When container sizes were later standardized, these two pioneers were stuck.

The Vietnam War proved the viability of containerized shipping. Once the Military Transport Command was sold, the rest of the shipping lines raced to catch up.

Container shipping also affected longshore labor and traditional longshore communities. Each coast had slightly different traditions of how labor was hired, how much labor was needed, and the different skill sets needed for each type of job. Longshoremen on both coasts saw containerization as a threat to their livelihood, which, in fact, it was. However, the resolution that each Maritime Association and Union (ILA on the East Coast and ILWU on the West) was very different.

Computerization and the Internet have made it possible for the Government of Palau, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean, to order dirt stablization blankets from a company in the state of Georgia, who load the finished product out of their manufacturing facilities in Tennessee and South Carolina into containers which are trucked to the railyard, loaded on a train for Long Beach, CA, unloaded from the train, taken by truck to the container yard in Long Beach, loaded on a vessel and unloaded in Palau. (That's not in the book. I arranged the logistics for that move in a previous job with the steamship line serving Palau.)

Although Mr. Levinson is an economist, there are very few graphs and numbers. There is some steamship/transportation jargon, which I believe he explains rather well. However, since I work in the industry, I might not notice it. I found his style to be relaxed rather than technical and dry. If you really want to get into the dry stuff, Mr. Levinson has footnotes that cite many sources.

I started in the steamship industry in 1976, so containerized shipping was really what I know. I saw first hand some of the changes that Mr. Levinson talks about, especially those at the end of the book. (He uses Barbie as an example of the new global economy and "Just In Time" production.) I was fascinated to see how we got to where we are and why so many of the older men I worked with had such a difficult time adjusting to the new business reality.

On the March Hare scale: 4.5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks, especially for anyone involved in or interested in global transportation and global economy.

And, yes, I know I'm a geek!