Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mims has a new book which takes a close look at the complex network of technology and people that make up that supply chain. I just listened to an interview of Mr. Mims on NPR which was so interesting that I requested that my library order the book.
“Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy,” by Christopher Mims
Transcript of the interview.
While the whole interview was interesting, the part I found most startling was the description of the robots sorting shipping containers after they are unloaded from ships in ports.
**So at the TraPac terminal at the Port of Los Angeles, which frankly is, I think, the future of all of shipping and ports in the U.S., after that container is plucked [off the ship] by the human-driven crane and dropped on the shore, everything is robots.**
**So these spindly legged, wheeled crane things roll over and grab a shipping container, and then they wheel it over to another robotic so-called gantry crane, which is much larger, and it spans a huge block of shipping containers. And it picks the shipping container up, and then it puts it in just the right place. And then 24 hours a day, those robotic gantry cranes are grooming those stacks, which just means that they're sorting the shipping containers so that when the next ship comes in, the containers it needs are on top, or when a truck comes into the port because it needs to take a shipping container out of that port, the container that it needs is right on top. So it's constantly just sorting all of these shipping containers. And the fact that they're using robots allows them to do it in a much smaller space and more efficiently.** [end quote]
I can’t imagine the chaos and inefficiency if this process wasn’t done by robots. The same kind of software that has to make decisions about what packet of data needs to go next through a home Wi-Fi router is used to sort and sequence the shipping containers.
Mr. Mims also describes the hardships of long-distance truckers. Only 1/3 of people with the license are actually driving trucks due to low pay, long hours and strain on family life.
Mr. Mims didn’t mention that robot-controlled, self-driving long-distance trucks are an obvious opportunity. He did describe the specialized port pilots who bring container ships into crowded ports after the regular crew sails the ship across the ocean. This would be analagous to a human driving a container truck from the port through the city up to the interstate. The self-driving truck could then take over for the long run to the city of delivery, where a human could pilot it to the warehouse.
Mr. Mims thinks that the supply chain problems that have led to inflation will continue due to all kinds of disasters - Covid, natural disasters, extreme weather, political issues - which have shut down ports and factories all over the world. The supply chain is extended and fragile. Just-in-time inventory systems are set up for perfection and vulnerable.