Simplicity in Logistics

Thoughts Jun 22, 2020

The logistics field was slow, inefficient, complex, and extremely painful.

Then someone, sitting in his truck alongside a ship waiting for his truck to be offloaded and cargo placed on the ship, had a game changing thought. Rather than deal with inefficiency, long waits, expensive operations, and rampant cargo theft (known  as pilferage), there had to be a better way of getting cargo on and off the ship. What if the back of the truck could simply be removed from the chassis and lifted on the ship? Oh how smooth the process would go. So in 1956 Malcom McLean sailed the worlds first container ship, the Ideal X, from Newar, NJ to Houston, TX with 58 containers. The idea took off.

The Simplicity of the Container

In concept and through early refinement of the idea, the containerization of cargo became one of the simplest methods of transportation in the world today.

For ocean carriers, stevedore's, truckers, cargo insurers, and shippers the process of shipping was made drastically easier. No laborious tracking of individual bags of coffee. A drastic reduction in cargo insurance claims from damage and theft. An insane reduction in cargo loading and unloading time for ships and  truckers. The whole process got easy.

Theoretically, the shipper loads the container with their cargo, the truck takes it to the dock, the crane lods it to the ship, and in a few days or weeks time, the cargo was safely at its destination.

Then the industry exploded

It goes without question that the container was one of the most radical inventions and innovations for trade.

But for containerization to work and become more and more cost effective, the scale of the industry had to grow. Since 1956, the industry has done just that.

Today terminals are jam packed with containers stacked to the sky, making marine terminals look like city blocks. The dance of how containers got off a truck and on to a ship grew more and more intricate and complex. While some of the complexities are unavoidable, several are intentional.

Today ships are carrying tens of thousands of containers on a single voyage. Terminals are processing hundred of thousands (and some millions) though their facility. Truckers are completing more round trips and driving tens of thousands of miles each year. Containerization has truly exploded in popularity.

The unavoidable complexity

As ships grew bigger and they added ports they were carrying containers to, terminals had to start sorting cargo by its destination as not to create un-necessary work. As ship safety and stability grew in importance, terminals had to sort cargo by weight. As hazardous materials began to populrize in water borne transportation, regulations and paperwork appeared to help keep sefarers and dock workers safe. As cargo values rose and claims for damaged or lost cargo increased, the terminals and ships had to keep precise records of specific processes.

In every market, industry, or business, as growth occurs complexity has the ability to expand if left unchecked. If a coffee shop adds more speacilty drinks to their menu, they then are keeping more supplies on hand, have more drinks to memorize, more items on the register, more for the customer to look at and make a decision on, you get the picture. As the coffee shop grows, from a single roast, drip only stand into a full fledged watering hole, the complexity of the operation grows inevitably.

While complexity was rising in the container industry for unavoidable reasons, two camps emerged. One camp believed that there was genius in complexity. The other believed there was genius in simplicity.

The first group of people believed that their product seemed more sophisticated and more valuable if there was complexity then you needed them to solve for you. Office Space anyone?

via GIPHY

This thought process is rampant in business. People feel like they can justify their job or even entire business by making things unnecessarily complex. A previous mentor of mine always said "There's [profit] margins in mystery" and a lot of people believe it. Think about a few businesses you go to often and enjoy going to. Are they complex or simple? I'm willing to bet you weren’t thinking about the US Post Office. USPS is full of unnecessary forms, complexities, tasks, and duties - yes in partbecause its government run but, because people are tyring to protect their positions.

On the other hand, theres a group of people who have adopted an exact polar opposite approach to complexity - eliminate it. These are the types of people who believe that the genius of an operation or business is in the refinement and automation of a process so that it becomes simple an effortless.

This type of mindset usually isn't found in large companies though. Over time as a company grows and scales, complexity creeps its way in - unless it is warded off. Malcom McLean created the container as a way to simplify the logistics process and greatly increase the efficiency of the marine shipping industry.

Simplicity at BoxWhere

We believe that people are hungry for that simplicity in containerization again. We know we are. We want to bring back the simplicity of the original container.

We've launched BoxWhere to be a one stop shop for all things marine transportation for guides, references, easy documents, as well as thoughts and ideas about the industry. Our vision is to enable any person to be a logistics and marine transport expert by providing simple and effective tools, resources, and training.

Join us by subscribing to our newsletter below for exclusive access to the BoxWhere platform.

Nick Seferos

Sea-going maritime professional on ships and tugs turned to shore-side terminal life. Nick manages shore-side personnel and security, customs, and hazardous shipments in a container terminal.

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