50th Anniversary of a HUGE Process Improvement

by Erin McCune on May 13, 2006

in Caught My Eye

Joe Nocera's NYTimes column today is about the 50th anniversary of the shipping container. That's right – those big 40 foot long steal boxes stacked high on the ships I see every day moving through the Golden Gate en route to and from the big container port in Oakland.

Why, you may ask, are containers so important? What's the big deal? The story of the container is a classic story of disruptive technology that completely transforms an industry (or in this case, many industries, paving the way for globalization). The shipping container significantly reduced the cost of transporting goods and enabled ships to move in and out of ports in a matter of hours rather than days.

If the invention of the container — and the larger changes that took place in moving goods from one place to another — was all there was to this revolution, it would have been important, but it wouldn't have transformed the world economy. For globalization to truly take place, companies had to reinvent the way they did business to take full advantage of the container's possibilities.

One of the first to do so was Toyota, which realized that if it managed its logistics shrewdly, it could save millions, if not billions, of dollars, by drastically reducing its inventories and adopting just-in-time manufacturing. In time, supply chain management became a pivotal skill for companies all over the world, and a pillar of global economy. This was never clearer than in the wake of 9/11, when customs inspectors began stepping up container inspections — and "auto plants in Michigan began shutting down within three days for lack of imported parts," Mr. Levinson writes.

Today's NY Times column:

A Revolution That Came in a Box
The New York TImes
May 13, 2006

Books mentioned in the column:

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

The Box That Changed the World
(a coffee table book with photos of ports, ships, and containers)
By Arthur Donovan and Joseph Bonney

Box Boats: How Container Ships Changed the World

By Brian J Cudahy

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