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Sunday, August 1, 2010

It’s not “How It’s Made”

Until recently a program ran on the Discovery Channel called How It’s Made. Produced in Canada, the program is distributed world-wide. You’ve seen it, I imagine: it narrates the step-by-step manufacture of various products -- something we don't commonly see. A few factories are open to the public, like the Harley-Davidson plant in York, Penn. Others are closed, however, because of either safety risks or competitive concerns; and most factories are simply too distant to visit. Glimpses into these factories are interesting, especially to a trained engineer like myself.

How It’s Made, though, simply isn’t as important to you and me as How It Gets Here. Whether it’s cellphones or avocadoes or gasoline, the vast majority of items that we use or consume every day have their origins far away.

Nearly all goods move between continents by ship. Recently there were news reports that the intercontinental shipping industry – still recovering from the recession – continues to hold seaworthy vessels in storage and to operate their in-service ships at slower speeds, saving fuel. Consequently there is a major disruption in worldwide commerce these days. Goods take much longer to get from the continent of origin to the continent of destination. Shortages, missed sales, higher prices, and desperate use of fuel-inefficient air cargo cascade through the economy.

Just as improvements in telecommunications have made our world smaller, so have improvements in the transportation of goods. People often think of U.S. railroads as has-been’s, but the truth is that U.S. railroads carry more tonnage today than in the glory years of 1920-1950. Multimodal shipping in containers was developed by Malcolm McLean, a North Carolina native. His innovation is to global shipping what the Internet is to global telecommunications. McLean is a seldom-recognized hero of the modern world.

The sections of the Interstate highway system that were built between 1950 and 1970 have deteriorated and require massive money for repair and modernization. Keeping this critical infrastructure productive will be a major problem over the next 20 years. Society at large would benefit from a better understanding of How It Gets Here.