The Box

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Summary – “The Box”, by Marc Levinson. Princeton 2006
Marc Levinson brings together in his book “The Box”, How The Shipping Container Made The World Smaller And the World Economy Bigger, a history in unitised freight handling in its birthplace, and shares with us an education in obsession, innovation, and invention. He describes through his main character, Malcom McLean, how to do business by integrating shipper, transporter, and customer in controlled logistics/ in a smooth supply chain. Further, the reader is given a lesson in investor relations whether they be public or private sector. Despite regulated land transport, and unregulated freight handling on the docks, the result is the same: inertia in the evolution of both road and rail, and competences to handle cargo. Despite awareness of production line efficiencies, these are not applied to the logistics channels, and their labour-intensiveness remains unquestioned. Levinson describes in great detail the value in managing cost, and optimising resources by applying economies of scale. By situating the reader in time, the author documents an abbreviated history in transportation for the 20th Century. Up until 1956, the century sees two world wars, a stock market crash, rationing, depleted industries, men desperate to work, and federal protectionist policies to sustain the livelihood of farming communities, or so we thought. He describes how the powerful steam train of the 19th Century suffers from decades of regulation and ‘competing’ services, how road infrastructure improves with freeways, turnpikes, and interstates under execution. Sea freight also remains unchanged as either bulk or break bulk. Freight handling at the dock from the ‘20’s to the ‘50’s, suffers from ever increasing strike activity by unions, and wharves laying more and more empty. Shippers are aware of the frustrations of transporting break bulk cargo, the numbers of manual transfers a single piece of cargo goes through when it is on the dock, in stark contrast to bulk shipping, with simpler loading and unloading. From 1956, until around 1970, standardisation of the container preoccupies the minds of regulating bodies both in the US and around the world. Engineers, both academic and professionally experienced, evaluate a game of numbers to determine standards in height, width and length. Operational experience thereafter sets weight limits and universal safety measures so that the metal container can be deployed on rail, road, and maritime transport systems. Standardisation does not restrict containerised transport during this time despite alterations in standardisation regulations, and actual containers used by shipping lines. “The Box” details the evolution of commerce across the seas, triangulating Asia, America and Europe, importing and exporting goods, reinvigorating the freighting industry. Levinson describes the applied experiments of need married to engineering expertise to make the transportation of goods efficient, expedient, and effective. During this period, European shipping lines adopt the use of the container and last of all are the Asian shipping lines by the early 1970’s. The infancy of globablisation turns into adolescence. The text focuses on 3 areas of research: the impact of changes in transportation technology, the importance of innovation, and the connection between transportation costs and economic geography. The result is what we call today globalisation: “the diffusion of economic activity without regard for national boundaries” (pp14.) Producers continue to focus on cost reduction, leading them to set up in new locations and deploy complex logistics systems. However, structural change is slow to have an effect. Not until the reports in the press regarding the US armed forces in Vietnam do we glean the dawn of a new age. The world begins to understand the enormous competitive advantage of shifting the paradigm in freighting, and shipping. By circa 1967, the way forward...
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