Arriving Today | Christopher Mims

Summary of: Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door-Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy
By: Christopher Mims


Get ready to dive into the intricate world of global supply chains, as we unveil the fascinating journey of products from factories to your doorstep. In ‘Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door’ by Christopher Mims, we explore the complex networks, technologies, and systems responsible for the seamless delivery of goods all over the world. Discover how container shipping revolutionized transportation and enabled globalization, and how multinational companies like Amazon have transformed the world of e-commerce. By understanding the inner workings of how products reach your door, you’ll gain a new appreciation for the modern-day miracle that is global supply chains.

The Intricate Art of Product Manufacturing and Distribution

The journey of a product involves many stages and advanced technologies, creating an indistinguishable divide between the supply chain and the factory floor. The international production of goods affects every product we use, from Scottish cod to self-driving trucks.

The Shipping Container Revolution

The shipping container, conceived during the Vietnam War, solved the problem of manually loading and unloading tons of gear for transportation. With a volume of 2,400 cubic feet, they can hold over 59,000 pounds and can be stacked up to 211 tons. These intermodal containers enabled e-commerce and made globalization possible through their speed and predictability. By 1980, container shipping represented 90% of transport for finished goods, becoming the workhorse of commercial shipping and facilitating the transportation of goods across the world.

Journey of a Product

Follow the complex and global supply chain of a product, from its origin in Asia to its arrival in America.

Have you ever wondered about the journey of a product that you ordered online? It’s likely that the USB charger you purchased was manufactured in a factory in Asia, most likely in Vietnam or another Southeast Asian country that is gaining market share. Multinational brands like Apple, Nike, and Google have established manufacturing centers in Vietnam as backups should a war or other events disrupt the flow of goods from China, which currently dominates world manufacturing.

Identifying the place of origin of a product can be challenging as modern factories function as final assembly plants in a long chain of parts and material suppliers. Take sportswear from Cambodia, for example. The clothes’ constituent parts might have journeyed thousands of miles before reaching a Cambodian factory. Supply chains can begin with the extraction of natural gas in Texas transported to China, spun into polyester thread, woven into polyester fabric, and then reaching the factory in Cambodia where workers fashion it into clothing. The supply chains for automobiles or electronics are even more complicated.

The Vietnamese workers who assembled your hypothetical USB charger likely labored in an industrial center north of Ho Chi Minh City. Once completed, the charger left the factory in a 40-foot shipping container on the bed of a semi-truck, transported to a freshwater port where ports annually process hundreds of thousands of containers carrying made-in-Vietnam items like Nike shoes, Gap clothing, and Samsung smartphones. The container holding your charger remained in the yard for three to five days, waiting for the ship that would carry it across the ocean.

The ship that carried your hypothetical charger is one of the biggest vessels at the Port of Los Angeles, America’s busiest port and the entry point for half of all the goods coming from Asia. Container ships have grown so large that many function at the upper limit that ports can handle. At 1,200 feet long and 170 feet wide, this ship weighed 157,000 deadweight tons, among the bigger vessels that the port can accommodate. Piloting the ship demands skill and is dangerous – the pilot must gain access to the container ship by leaping from a small boat to a Jacob’s ladder (a rope ladder with wooden rungs) dangling down the side of the giant ship.

Once aboard, the pilot cautiously guides the ship through the channel to the quay, drawing on their knowledge of local geography, weather, tides, currents, along with signals from US and Russian GPS systems, the Automatic Identification System (AIS), the Electronic Chart Display, Information System (ECDIS), and other electronics. Throughout, the pilot stays in radio contact with the tugboats surrounding the ship.

In conclusion, the journey of a product from its origin to its arrival involves a complex and global supply chain that requires skill and knowledge at every level. Whether it’s the factory workers in Asia, the truck drivers, crane operators in shipping ports, or the pilot sailing into American waters, this journey involves a network of people and technology working behind the scenes.

Automation and Supply Chain

The world of supply chain has rapidly evolved with the integration of automation and artificial intelligence, leading to faster and more efficient delivery processes. From port machines to sorting centers, robots and algorithms are now a crucial part of the system, minimizing the need for human labor. At ports like the TraPac terminal, autostrads and stacking cranes have replaced workers in moving and storing containers. The automated sorting centers of FedEx, UPS, Amazon, and USPS use conveyor belts and machines to move packages, with human workers stepping in only when necessary. Thanks to AI and automation, the supply chain now takes as little as 24 hours to move goods from the ports to the retailers or e-commerce fulfillment centers. As we continue to push innovation in technology, we can expect an even smoother and more efficient supply chain in the near future.

The Impact of COVID on Supply Chains

The COVID pandemic caused global supply chain disruptions, causing a shortage of goods worldwide. The demand for consumer goods and medical supplies exceeded supply, impacting even e-commerce giants like Amazon. As people resorted to online purchases, supply chains proved insufficient, causing delays and backlogs. The Los Angeles port alone witnessed a tremendous surge in freight volume. Despite the challenges, Amazon emerged as the leading e-commerce platform, showcasing its resilience and adaptability.

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