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A universal language for global trade

This article by Ryan Petersen is a good history lesson on how shipping containers came to be. Here is an excerpt:

The idea for containerization came from a trucker, not a shipper. Malcolm McLean started out hauling empty tobacco barrels with his family in North Carolina in 1935. At that time, entire trucks would drive onto ships, wasting both a ton of potential cargo space, plus a chassis that could be on the road moving goods. McLean developed plans to use the so-called trailerships for travel from North Carolina to New York, but U.S. regulations didn’t allow one person to own both a trucking and a shipping company at the same time. So McLean did what any innovation-minded entrepreneur would do: He dumped the trucking company, took out a $22 million loan, and, in January 1956, bought two World War II T-2 tankers. 

The magic of shipping containers is that they created a standard. Now all of a sudden you had standardized boxes that were intermodal. They could fit on ships, rail, and trucks. Ryan refers to containers as the “unsung hero of logistics.”

He also likens them to the HTTP standard that helped give us the internet that we know today. Before HTTP, computers could only communicate with each other if they were on the same local network. Now we are, of course, connected globally.

But while containers standardized a part of our physical infrastructure, there’s a lot that remains fragmented and manual:

The same way data passes between devices via the internet, goods pass between ocean ports, airports, warehouses, and other entities to reach their final destination. Without a logistics standard to act as a request-response protocol, all the players — suppliers, drayage, ports, warehouses, buyers — have to stitch their networks together manually. 

Information gets lost; layers of redundancy, designed as backups given low visibility, slow the exchange: connections end up being very brittle. Let’s say there’s a shipment scheduled to arrive in Long Beach on Tuesday. But which terminal exactly and what pier number? What time is pickup? How long before late charges are incurred? Finding these answers is labor-intensive and imprecise. Logistics managers end up consulting different sources on websites, via email, or in person. 

The dirty secret of the industry is that no one really knows where their stuff is.

I’ll be honest in that I was expecting the article to transition into talk of blockchains. But that’s okay. The underlying message remains the same. Better software and more standardization is needed to improve our physical world.

For some added context: Ryan Petersen is the founder of a company called Flexport.

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