Arriving Today and how our need for speed is tying up supply chains  

Ever wonder how we can receive our online orders so fast? Find out in Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door—Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. Arriving Today says nothing about food supply chains. Christopher Mims traces the two-month journey of a simple USB charger. It starts out in a factory in Vietnam and appears like magic on our doorstep soon after we order it online. How does that happen? Let’s trace it through the supply chain:

From the factory down the river once navigated by US Navy patrol boats—›loading in a container at a large shipyard in South Korea—›across the Pacific Ocean to offloading of the container at the Port of Los Angeles—›from the container to a stock-loaded tractor-trailer—›across the country to an Amazon warehouse for sorting —›to another Amazon warehouse for more sorting—›to a third Amazon warehouse close to us—›to a delivery truck that will travel that last mile—›to our doorstep.

That’s right it will visit at least three Amazon warehouses before it arrives today. It is obvious that the charger on our doorstep was somewhere in the bowels of the supply chain when we ordered it. How can such a process be profitable? It’s complicated. Mims helps us understand the process.

USB charger similar to one in the book
Travel adapter similar to one that traveled from Vietnam to our door

Throughout the book the author describes each step in the journey. With one exception, Mims brings detail to each transfer of the charger to the next step. Along the way he identifies workers and how they make our delivery possible. Most poignant for me was the life of the long-distance trucker. And yet, more than anyone else in the chain, we rely on overworked and underpaid truckers to get us our stuff on time. We gain insight on the item, its journey, and the workers who make it happen. We also learn about supply management and the organizing principle of modern work. Then there is a peak into what happens inside an Amazon warehouse. It turns out that Bezoism takes supply management to a new level. Then we travel with the driver as he traverses the last mile of the journey.

Back to the long-haul truckers. In the union days of the 1960s truckers made about $120,000 a year in today’s dollars. Today they earn about $45,000. Most of them spend many unpaid hours away from home each week. When the truck is not moving, the drivers are not making money even as they wait in long lines to pick up or drop off a load. If that is not depressing enough, consider the specter of autonomous trucks.

QC, TQM, and just-in-time delivery populate the language of supply managers. These techniques increase the efficiency of the supply chain and lower prices to us. They are all part of Lean Manufacturing. Some entities seek to overcome logjams in the chain. Building more warehouses and moving manufacturing stateside are two strategies. Replacing workers with robots is also under consideration. Sounds good, but changing one step affects other operations. Inflation is the factor we will notice first. Don’t look for Lean Manufacturing and its tendrils in the supply chain to disappear anytime soon.

Amazon does not come out of Arriving Today looking good. The company touts its $15/hour pay scale as advanced. The author suggests that we are swapping the $40/hour factory jobs for Amazon’s ‘generous’ offer. And Amazon jobs are difficult. They involve constant interaction with robots. Why can’t Amazon rely on robots alone? First, Amazon owns nonautomated warehouses. Second, humans have superior eye/hand coordination that robots can’t master—yet! Long hours on their feet with limited breaks wear down these workers. Each one is under continuous surveillance. The company writes up the bottom 25% in productivity each week. Returns to the bottom 25% can lead to dismissal. Not to worry. No worker shortages at Amazon. There is always room for another eager person looking for $15.00/hour.

Assessing blame for supply-chain breakdowns. A habit of our times is to find someone or something to blame. Let’s start with consumers. The pandemic drove us to do less shopping in person and more shopping online. It saves getting out of our pjs to shop, and it saves gas. Online ordering is available 24/7. It may not be the consumer to blame as such but the pressure to get whatever we need to us fast. Do we need it tomorrow or by the end of the week? Did we demand superfast service? Did Amazon promise it to us? Or, did they promise it first, and now we expect it? Of course, it is tempting to pass on the blame elsewhere. Let’s blame the ports for creating logjams. They deflect blame to the worker shortage or the lack of trucks. Or are the supply chains not functioning well most of the time? Have we undergone true suffering as a result of malfunctioning chains? Or are we stirred up by scary news stories?

Arriving Today raises other issues that we would rather not think about. Online ordering affects sustainability. Our reliance on trucks requires massive amounts of fossil fuel and increased emissions. Speed of delivery leads to less efficient operations and more wasted fuel. The last mile may be the least fuel-efficient step in the journey. Worker conditions and safety along the journey are easy for us to ignore. While reading the book I began to question my ordering habits. I borrowed this copy from my local library, but most of the books I review on this site come from Amazon. I don’t insist on immediate delivery of my books. If I order a book from my local bookstore, who are the middlemen between the printer and the store? Do they treat their workers any better?

book resting on a doorstep with dog looking out at it behind glazed glass
Book that arrived today

What lessons can we learn from the book about food networks? The USB charger in Arriving Today did not need refrigeration as it traveled to our doorstep. Perishable foods and ingredients do, and they need extra care. Fresh produce tends to have fewer steps. Many fresh items, however, travel on international routes. Even a simple network to deliver the charger seems complex. This description helps us appreciate the added complexity in a perishable-food chain. I found the book to be eye-opening and a good fit with Food Routes reviewed last week. Both books are well worth the read!

Next week: Supply challenges from the perspective of an ingredient supplier by Christine Addington

2 thoughts on “Arriving Today and how our need for speed is tying up supply chains  

  1. I started out as an English major and used to sit in my camps quad reading poetry books. A couple of these poems made such a impression on me I’ve never forgotten them. “The Song Of the Shirt” was written by Thomas Hood in 1848. The poem is as relevant today as it was when it was written during the English Industrial Revolution. Here’s the first stanza:

    With fingers weary and worn,
    With eyelids heavy and red,
    A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
    Plying her needle and thread—
    Stitch! stitch! stitch!
    In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
    And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
    She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”

    I’m no fan of the Amazon experience and have stopped patronizing Whole Foods.

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    1. Interesting, and yet neither of us are in unseemly rags. We are both better off that Hood was in the 1840s. Your points are well taken. But where do we draw the line? How much of our lives have benefitted from commercialization? When do we decide to jump off? You have made your decisions. I still need to make mine.

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