Monday, May 14, 2007

Did the shipping container change the world?

Cover of The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc LevinsonThe book "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger" by Marc Levinson says it all in the subtitle. This is a book about how standardization of containers for transporting goods lowered shipping costs. This made it possible for factories in China to compete internationally. The book is worth a read for those interested in the interplay between business and technology. Technologists may want to skip some of the chapters on the economics of shipping.

The book is mostly about Malcolm McLean, "the father of containerization". It is argued that as an outsider, McLean was able to see the value of shipping goods in standardised boxes on ships. The boxes could be loaded from trucks and trains onto ships by crane, without the need to unpack and repack each load.

Levinson argues that standardized containers forced a rationalization in manufacturing as well as shipping. He also makes the point that the early adopters were not the most successful. Those who waited until the container was developed and then invested had the more successful business.

The computerized systems which allow shipping containers to be scheduled and tracked around the world get mentioned in several places in the book, as does Toyota's "Just in Time" manufacturing process. Currently another revolution may, or may not be taking place, as businesses adopt web based standards and learn to tightly integrate their processes.

The book covers the actual process by which the process McLean demonstrated was turned into a formal standard, in only a few pages. Anyone who has been on a standards committee will be familiar with the agony of slow standards processes, competing interests and egos which Levinson discusses. I would have liked some more detail on the details of the shipping container standard and some of the more unusual things people do with them.

empoHousing two bedroom four TEU homeOne of the more unusual spinoffs of shipping containers, are containerized apartment blocks. You can order a six story apartment block of six hundred units from a factory in China. It will arrive on a ship as six hundred containers and be erected in a few days.

No comments: