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Businesses China Transportation

The Box That Built the Modern World 216

HughPickens.com writes: Andrew Curry has an interesting article about how more than any other single innovation, the shipping container epitomizes the enormity, sophistication, and importance of our modern transportation system. It's invisible to most people, but fundamental to how practically everything in our consumer-driven lives works. "Think of the shipping container as the Internet of thing," says Curry. "Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient's inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant." Last year the world's container ports moved 560 million 20-foot containers. Even cars and trucks—known in the trade as "RoRo," or "roll-on, roll-off" cargo—are increasingly being loaded into containers rather than specialized ships. "Containers are just a lot easier," says James Rice. "A box is a box. All you need is a vessel, a berth, and a place to put the container on the ground.

Consider the economics of a T-shirt sewn at a factory near Beijing. 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," says Rainer Horn. "It doesn't matter anymore where you produce something now, because transport costs aren't important."
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The Box That Built the Modern World

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  • by fustakrakich ( 1673220 ) on Sunday October 18, 2015 @11:34AM (#50753587) Journal

    If you buy local, you need less transport

    • by DamonHD ( 794830 ) <d@hd.org> on Sunday October 18, 2015 @11:42AM (#50753617) Homepage

      But quite possibly no less cost, time, energy or carbon.

      It can take more energy/cost/etc to ship something inefficiently within your local state/county/etc than to get it shipped efficiently from China.

      Rgds

      Damon

      • Dollars don't always tell the story, but I'm finding it cheaper, and often almost as fast, to order electronic components out of Hong Kong via Amazon as from DigiKey.

    • by khallow ( 566160 )
      Introducing economic inefficiencies also creates pollution. And if all you do is buy local, then how are you ever going to taste the variety of foods world-wide?
    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Sunday October 18, 2015 @12:11PM (#50753721)

      If you buy local, you need less transport

      Transport costs are very low, and energy used in transport is likely a lot lower than you think (which is why the cost is low). If you live in California, you may think you are being "green" by eating local California grapes instead of grapes from Chile. But you are wrong. The California grapes are grown with energy intensive irrigation. The water is pumped for hundreds of miles. The Chilean grapes are grown with rainwater. That makes a much bigger difference than the transport of the final product.

      As a general rule of thumb, the product produced with the least resources, is the one with the lowest price.

    • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Sunday October 18, 2015 @12:15PM (#50753743)
      Not necessarily. You have to take into account the efficiency of the transport. From the figures I've seen, the fuel cost to ship something from China to the U.S. is about the same as the fuel cost to transport it from a U.S. port to its final destination inland (the U.S. has a terrible rail system so most goods are transported by relatively inefficient trucks).

      Assuming the 1 cent to transport a T-shirt from China figure is correct, if you're driving more than 500 feet to buy your "local" T-shirt, you're producing more pollution buying from that local store. It's even questionable if walking that distance has a smaller pollution footprint because of the energy cost needed to produce the food you ate which powers your walk to the local store. (And no, you cannot bypass this by growing a home garden. People vastly underestimate how much land is needed to grow the food we eat [boston.com]. Now factor in the energy needed to work all that land, and you'll quickly find that you'll need to increase your daily caloric intake to 5000-8000 kcal/day if you farm that by hand. There's a very good reason we shifted that inefficient labor-intensive task to being done by machines.)

      Maximum energy efficiency is achieved when you multitask and group multiple tasks together. That's how buying stuff on Amazon can end up cheaper with a smaller energy footprint than buying stuff locally. Yes if Amazon were to ship just one T-shirt to you and UPS sent a truck out to deliver just one T-shirt to your house, it' be horribly inefficient. But that UPS truck makes a hundred or so deliveries on its daily route so the portion of its total drive attributable to your T-shirt package delivery is only a few hundred or few thousand feet. Likewise Amazon processes millions of orders every day, so the portion of its operating costs attributable to your single order is very small. This is also the same reason the big department stores end up being able to offer lower prices than the small mom and pop shop - greater volume of sales generates more opportunity for efficiency improvements. If you can come up with a way to combine big box efficiency with the mom and pop buying experience, you'll become the next billionaire.
      • the U.S. has a terrible rail system so most goods are transported by relatively inefficient trucks).

        Why are you talking about something you know nothing about? The US has an incredibly efficient rail system in terms of goods, and the vast majority of products are moved by rail, where it is then transported to its final destination by truck. Sure, Amtrak sucks, in most of the US it uses freight rail and takes second place to freight.

        • by MountainLogic ( 92466 ) on Sunday October 18, 2015 @01:55PM (#50754175) Homepage
          Indeed, we did have a great rail system, but it has been perverted by energy companies exporting coal and oil. The coal and oil companies have cut monopolistic deals to buy up all the capacity on many lines. They are able to do this by making big buys. This has forced others who ship periodically to rely on much more expensive trucks. In some cases farmers who have used these lines for over 100 years have not been able to get product to market because trucking cost more than their profit. Also our rail lines are perpetually in decay and we are loosing many miles of feeder lines that service warehouse and factories districts every year causing a reverse Metcalf effect [wikipedia.org] that will eventually kill the utility of our critical rail system.
    • by serviscope_minor ( 664417 ) on Sunday October 18, 2015 @12:38PM (#50753823) Journal

      Define: less.

      You certainly need to travel less distance. However, modern container ships are fearsomely efficient. They've been banging on about "green" and "low carbon" recently, but they've always been practicing that since it reduces costs and increases the very slim profit margins.

      In terms of shipping, it'll take easily as much, probably substantially more carbon getting the goods from the dock to your door as it does getting them from China to your nearest major container port. The engines on those ships hit over 50% thermal efficiency for the best of them, which is second only giant land based combined cycle plants (it's better than coal plants). That combined with immense volume (drag is related to area, so size pays off well) and slow speed means that container ships are quite astonishingly efficient.

      I crunched the numbers once for curiosity and was amazed by the results.

      Buying local can save a bit, but not nearly as much as you think. Nonetheless, there's still other good reasons for buying local, and I try to do it where possible.

      • Define: less.

        You certainly need to travel less distance. However, modern container ships are fearsomely efficient. They've been banging on about "green" and "low carbon" recently, but they've always been practicing that since it reduces costs and increases the very slim profit margins.

        The ships are running on some really dirty cheap diesel though that is not legal to use in any country on Earth, but unregulated in international waters. So while they don't contribute much CO2 they contribute a large amount of the rest of the harmfull emmissions from fossil fuels.

    • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

      But I cant get slave labor built devices for really low prices locally. I have to actually pay living wages and that's unamerican!

    • Not actually, you're just making a huge assumption.

      Giant factory farms are far, far more efficient users of energy and fuel than small family farms, it's simple economies of scale.
      Giant container ships are astonishingly cheap fuelwise, compared to trucks, so are trains.

      So yes, if you live near a giant factory farm, by all means buy local.
      Everyone else is probably better off buying from a specialized producer.

      Look, the grocery business is the most cutthroat in the world, operating huge supermarkets at margin

    • Don't know where you live, but in my neighborhood you can't get a T-shirt made for $0.01, or even $10 for 100.

      As long as there's profit to be made with transport, transport will be used. What we need is to add the externalized costs of transport to it. Cost of relocating 180 million people off the coastline? Divide that up across the cargo being shipped and that $0.01 T-shirt might start to cost more like $0.25 - possibly still worth shipping, possibly not, but we shouldn't let the cost of burning the fu

  • A great book (Score:5, Informative)

    by davebarnes ( 158106 ) on Sunday October 18, 2015 @11:36AM (#50753595)

    The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
    by Marc Levinson

    A really good read

    • I read it earlier this year and it's a lot better than what you would expect considering the subject. As you go through it you can see how seemingly small decisions made half a century ago are still influencing how we design our infrastructure today (trucks vs. trains).

  • It doesn't matter anymore where you produce something now, because transport costs aren't important.

    The is utter bullshit. The cost of shipping is decidedly important if you're trying to move goods from China to the US, unless the goods have an enormous cost per unit volume. In the case of the t-shirts, the shipping was probably most of the 1 cent.

    The next time we do a big import for our distribution business, we'll try telling the shippers that we don't need to pay them and we'll see how far that gets us.

    • Re:BS (Score:4, Informative)

      by kamapuaa ( 555446 ) on Sunday October 18, 2015 @11:53AM (#50753653) Homepage

      They meant the cost to transport the shirt was one cent. Not the unit cost of the shirt, of course.

      • Yes.

        Cotton routinely trades at around 65-80 (US) cents per pound, and depending on size, you can turn a pound into 2 to 2-1/2 t-shirts.

    • by fnj ( 64210 )

      I don't want to call you stupid, but are you drunk or something? The assertion is that it costs one cent to ship a T-shirt across the world. A shirt you pay at least five bucks for in the store. You can bet ylour ass that shirt costs more than one cent to manufacture, even in China. That means that manufacturing it 20,000 km away as compared to 1 km away only has a penalty of 0.2% of the retail price, and still a small fraction of the manufacturing cost. Goddam right the bulk trunk transportation costs are

  • It can also be used to transport people, often with fatal results. Or you can go eco and turn it into a modular pre-fab house [wikipedia.org].
  • Pointless analogy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by TWX ( 665546 ) on Sunday October 18, 2015 @12:04PM (#50753695)

    "Think of the shipping container as the Internet of thing," says Curry. "Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient's inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant."

    This analogy is poorly constructed. Analogies are needed when an abstract concept with no tangible component needs to be explained by substituting a tangible form in place of an abstract form. Packing shipping containers, even with disparate contents that are later 'broken down' to go to individual recipients, is a tangible concept that does not need to use an abstract concept like data into packets into frames into bits back into frames back into bits back into frames back into packets (etc) to explain.

    It doesn't even need something abstract to explain how the form factors of shipping containers impact goods, as one can simply state that due to standardization in three or four common shipping container sizes dictates the size and packing of goods that get packed into such containers, which in-turn dictate the dimensions of pallets on which goods may be placed, the size of railcars on which containers may ride, and even the size of tunnels for rail cars and the shapes of loading docks at distribution facilities.

    One can even talk about the downsides (like how the form factors were somewhat arbitrary and work equally well and poorly for both fractional and SI units) and how there's real concern for the wastes associated with moving the mass the mass of the container itself. Again, no analogy needed.

    • by KGIII ( 973947 )

      It seems more like multicast than email so maybe it would be like email to a mailing list... *nods*

      Either way, a point - you have one. That was probably the worst analogy I've seen in a summary in a long time. I mean, you know, we're on Slashdot - most of us actually understand the idea of shipping if not truly comprehend it from the BILLION AND THREE documentaries we've seen about it. We don't *really* need an analogy.

      *sighs*

      Maybe they're aiming for a lowbrow crowd in hopes of attracting more users and fin

    • Speaking of which, I thought it was the pallet that changed everything..

      Pallets: The Single Most Important Object in the Global Economy [slate.com]

      • by TWX ( 665546 )
        I don't know how one could judge the human-scale pallet against the machine-scale shipping container. Both revolutionized their particular aspect of shipping and storage, and they're definitely intermingled. I've watched an idiot that was too stupid to go to the warehousing and materiel department to get spare pallets and stretchwrap force a crew of eight to manually pack hundreds of old computer cases into a shipping container for storage, only to have to unload the cases when the container had to be mov
      • by CharlieG ( 34950 )

        The container revolution is the next step in the pallet revolution. A friend of mine Master's paper is on the pallet. Interesting topic (single use vs reusable vs pool pallets - the 'Blue' painted ones you see are rented

    • Containers are like packets in many ways, in theory they can be any size but if you want to get them through a gateway in practice they need to be a specific size. They have labels on them describing their contents which are often lies. They sometimes fall off the boat and get lost...

  • by John Jorsett ( 171560 ) on Sunday October 18, 2015 @12:30PM (#50753789)
    I'm old enough to remember when containerization was just beginning to ramp up. The stevedores (the guys who manually shifted the goods from ship to shore and vice versa) were really upset because it would reduce the number of jobs (their contracts typically let them set the number of men on each job. Nice deal, that) and make their pilfering from the cargo much tougher. Somebody estimated that 5% or so of consumer goods never made it to the destination. There were violent strikes and sabotage of the port facilities during that time. Goes to show that when you kick over somebody's rice bowl, no matter how much better you might be making things, you're going to get pushback. A lesson that still applies, these days for the Uber economy.
    • by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Sunday October 18, 2015 @03:23PM (#50754537)

      There were violent strikes and sabotage of the port facilities during that time. Goes to show that when you kick over somebody's rice bowl, no matter how much better you might be making things, you're going to get pushback. A lesson that still applies, these days for the Uber economy.

      It's funny, because I think you overlook the odd commonalities between the old-fashioned stevedore model and the Uber model.

      Both of them are based on an idea that having a steady job with consistent employees is unnecessary. It's obviously cheaper to hire people on demand.

      The traditional model for stevedores were guys who'd show up at the docks every morning and just HOPE they might get enough work that day to get paid and go home and feed their families. That just depended on whether the shipping schedules and amount of goods happened to be enough to support them.

      The life of a lot of these guys was terrible -- they worked hard, when they could, but they had no job security at all... since they had no "job," per se. If they had an unlucky accident and hurt their backs or whatever, they could be out on the street begging.

      Then, at some point, through strikes workers' rights movements, the stevedores finally achieved REAL jobs.

      Ironically, the "Uber economy" you favor is heading toward putting its "contract workers" (people who struggle to cobble together enough part-time work to live) back in the same place that the stevedores were before unions... standing on the docks, hoping that enough ships come in today to feed the family.

      (P.S. I'm not arguing in favor of corrupt unions, nor am I celebrating destructive stevedore protests. But I think we need to realize why those stevedores were so upset to lose their jobs... those were hard-won concessions that they fought to get out of an "Uber economy" model, because it made their lives miserable.)

      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        I was under the impression the taxi system was primarily created to improve customer service because without limits there's be many serving the "sweet spots" both in terms of hours and locations while the rest would be under-served. By making medallions that hold a rather big capital investment it's necessary to keep the taxi on the road as much as possible, even through the slow hours, because even though they're not as profitable it's better than leaving them unused. Not unlike how the postal service will

      • Ironically, the "Uber economy" you favor is heading toward putting its "contract workers" (people who struggle to cobble together enough part-time work to live) back in the same place that the stevedores were before unions... standing on the docks, hoping that enough ships come in today to feed the family.

        Taxi drivers are already there.

  • The next logical step should make the outsourcer's blood run cold. That is, individuals gain access to the cheap container shipping.

    What do they plan to do when a typical consumer figures out how to go direct and get a new wardrobe for $20? Right nbow, you can order from China but the shipping costs more than the goods you have shipped. That's the real reason U.S. corporations are going crazy over trademarks and clones. They know the day is coming when we can get the same thing they're selling for pennies o

    • by KGIII ( 973947 )

      I dunno, I've ordered lots of stuff on a slow boat from China and I'm kind of thinking it cost them more to ship it to me than I paid? I mean, a few dollars - total, with free shipping, for a pretty bulky package. When I get stuff shipped to me, I'm all the way over in Maine and that stuff is coming in on the West Coast. I really don't know how much they pay for shipping but it'd have to be dirt cheap. It usually takes about six weeks to get to me, sometimes longer, but it's almost always free shipping and

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        I suspect they probably aren't losing money, that would be kind of silly, though they may not be making much.

        Now, just imagine how cheaply the major dealers in the U.S. are getting them when they buy thousands at a time. Then look at what they are selling them for.

        • by KGIII ( 973947 )

          I'd assume that too but they're often heavy packages. Stuff that simply costs more to ship USPS, for example. They've generally got the strange 'stamp' looking thing on them and no indication of US Postage on some of them. I have no idea how they get to my mail box for that price. They must have some sort of pre-sort deal or whatnot.

    • The next logical step should make the outsourcer's blood run cold. That is, individuals gain access to the cheap container shipping.

      That's a business in theory, but the problem is, you've got to have some way to get your pallets delivered. You can only get them sent to a freight depot cheaply.

  • Yup. Look at destination charges for vehicles. GMC $925-$1195 from USA to USA. BMW $995 from Germany to USA. Toyota $720-$835 from Japan. It is actually cheaper to ship it from overseas and then put it on a train and then on a truck than it is to just put it on a train and then on a truck.
  • Empty Containers (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    On big problem with Shipping Containers is their sometimes one-way nature. My father was in Marine Insurance, and his biggest last big problem was how to get, say 100,000 empty Containers from say, Abu Dhabi, back to all the Ports where they are needed. (That's ~$300,000,000 worth of Containers, every few months...)
    Frankly, there's not much of interest in Abu Dhabi that's worth shipping out by Container.
    Currently, at US West Coast Ports, between a quarter and a third of incoming full Containers leave Port

  • Seriously. We are currently in a state of half-a**ed implementation of containerization anyway. Checked bags must be "62 inch" bags (height, width, and depth adding to no more than 62") or they become "over-size" and subject to huge fees. According lots of people travel with bags that fit an almost standard set of dimensions: 27" x 21" x 14"; carry-ons are limited to being "45 inch bags" (22" x 14" x 9"). And unless you want all your belongings to be crushed beyond recognition it had better be a hard case,

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