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Robotics

Christopher Mims on Automation In Shipping, Future Logistics, and His New Book ‘Arriving Today’

Aerial view of the TraPac automated cargo facility at the Port of Los Angeles. Courtesy of TraPac.

Aerial view of the TraPac automated cargo facility at the Port of Los Angeles. Courtesy of TraPac.

Journalist Christopher Mims faced a predicament as he stood at Cai Mep International Terminal, in January of 2020. He had come to Vietnam to do some reporting for a book he was working on about the global supply chain. But, suddenly, the world appeared to be on the precipice of major change—and with it the book he would write.

Mims is a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he writes Keywords, a weekly column on tech. He’s closely followed automation across all kinds of sectors, attempting to better understand its risks and rewards for the global supply chain. “So often as a tech journalist, you hear X, Y, Z could be coming,” Mims said “But to see it actually implemented in the real world—that’s always the most exciting thing for me.”

In Arriving Today, Mims tracks a theoretical USB stick, from its origins at multiple factory floors to its end user. For all the rethinking Mims had to do for this project in the wake of the pandemic, he remains most intrigued by the future of automation in logistics.

The book makes for compelling reading, not just because of the moment we find ourselves in—the one in which the global supply chain is covered almost daily in the media—but for its illumination of the surprisingly suspenseful journeys the most mundane household products endure before reaching our hands.

We hear so much about robots in warehouses and sorting centers, but much less about the maritime segment of the global supply chain. In the end, Mims concludes, “You live inside a factory. We all do.”

Ground Truth caught up with Mims to better understand the new world of shipping and how it’s changing our future. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ground Truth: What made you want to write this book?

Christopher Mims: The starting point was seeing how much robotics Amazon put into their fulfillment centers, and then seeing video of the almost fully automated grocery fulfillment centers that a company called Ocado has built in the UK. Even in manufacturing, I had never seen that level of automation. I just wanted to learn more, because so often as a tech journalist, you hear XYZ could be coming, but to see it actually implemented in the real world—that’s always the most exciting thing for me. So, I wanted to explore it. I visited Ocado in the suburbs outside of London, and that kind of just started to draw me into what was going on with logistics in general. Eventually, it led me to thinking, Okay, why not write a book about the entire supply chain from start to finish?

You begin in Vietnam, where you visit Cai Mep International Terminal, part of the country’s largest ocean-facing port. The catch is it was in March of 2020. When it became clear that the COVID-19 virus was swiftly becoming a global pandemic, what were you thinking might happen to the global supply chain?

I didn’t have a clue, and I don’t think anybody did. Every major company and their logistics planners thought—and this was evidenced by what they did in terms of their ordering and what they did with their own supply chains, and it’s one reason we’ve had so many problems to this day—that what was going to happen as a result of the pandemic was going to be something like a repeat of the 2008 Great Recession, where demand pulled way back and there was going to be an economic recession, if not worse. So, they sort of froze all their orders, anticipating that demand was going to drop for everything. But, of course, the opposite happened. Absolutely nobody anticipated that.

You devote several chapters in the book to the nearly fully automated shipping container terminal TraPac, located in the Port of Los Angeles. Was this visit in your plans, or did it come about only after things started to get messy in the global supply chain?

Yes, it was in my original plans. So much of what’s happening with logistics and supply chains is about automation. I wanted to focus on TraPac for that reason. Being such an automated terminal, which is an exception in the Port of LA, it was clear that they represented the future.

Aerial view of the TraPac automated cargo facility at the Port of Los Angeles showing a colorful array of shipping containers
Courtesy of TraPac

What were your initial feelings witnessing this massive autonomous operation at TraPac?

I think that was an instance where I just thought that it was cool. There was no qualification to that — I was just like, Wow, this is a lot of robots, they’re very big, I’ve never seen anything like this, and who knew such a thing existed? It felt a little bit science fiction, but it also felt remarkably mundane, because it wasn’t like, these were giant battle bots about to go into an arena and smash each other. They were just moving shipping containers—one of the most mundane things that can possibly happen. So, on the one hand, I was like, This is amazing. And then on the other, I was like, Wow, all this automation and software and optimization just to make sure there’s stuff on the shelves at Walmart three months from now.

You talk a lot about the ship-to-shore cranes at the TraPac terminal, which remain human operated. Do you see a time when they may too become fully automated?

It’s difficult to say, because those cranes, they have one of the most challenging and high stakes jobs. There’s a little more variability in terms of what they deal with. So, those are the kind of tasks where humans tend to stay either in control or, at the very least, in the loop.

And what are the other jobs being done by humans at TraPac that can’t be replaced by robots?

Maintaining those robots is a big part of it. Giant self-driving machines have a lot of moving parts, bushings that need to be replaced, axles that need to be greased, computers that can break. Somebody’s got to maintain all that automation.

So, it seems like the future is not black-and-white, that it’s not going to be all human or all robot — it’s the two working together?

Yes. Paradoxically, because automation makes humans more productive, because automation has made next day and same day delivery possible, that has so completely changed overall consumption patterns and is eating so much into physical retail, that, for the foreseeable future, all of these companies, like Amazon, are going to need to hire more and more and more people.

There’s just such an insatiable demand for humans. I mean, the paradox right now is, the more robots you put into the system, the cheaper it makes delivery, the more delivery everyone consumes, the more humans you need to be a part of that system. Quarter after quarter, month after month, we’re seeing industries like hospitality shrink because of the pandemic, of course, but where are those workers going? It’s not a great resignation. It’s a great turnover. And the sector that keeps growing is logistics. Amazon’s hiring. FedEx is hiring. UPS is hiring. A ton of companies nobody’s ever heard of are hiring.

That’s fascinating. It is a paradox. So, are we jumping the gun when we say, one day, there will be a tipping point, and the robots will replace all of us, when in actuality there’ll be some sort of innovation — heretofore unknown — where the jobs don’t disappear for humans, they just get redistributed to different duties? 

That is all that has ever happened in the 10,000-year history of human toolmaking and automation. I mean, if you go back to the Luddites and smashing looms, and you look at what actually happened there—robots don’t take human’s jobs, they slowly displace them. As economies become more productive, and people consume more of different categories of goods and services, humans just take other jobs.

This is why we have a labor crunch right now. If the robots are going to take all of our jobs, they would have done it already. And I know that there are a lot of people who are like, “Oh, AI is coming and the robots are going to become ever more capable.” Frankly, I think that’s just an incredibly patronizing view from people who don’t know how hard and challenging many blue-collar jobs are, and how much skill they require. If anything, the more automation comes in, the more cognitively demanding these jobs become. I mean, the modern-day long-haul trucker, they’ve got a cab full of electronics, because there are a million different things they’re trying to juggle just to string all the loads together. I mean, look, not only have those jobs not gone away, they just keep demanding more people.

Aerial view of the TraPac automated cargo facility at the Port of Los Angeles showing a colorful array of shipping containers
Courtesy of TraPac

Automation has clearly come a long way at ports. But what about out on the high seas — will the ships themselves become autonomous? 

There are already so few people on modern cargo ships these days. What is the real utility in making that giant oceangoing vessel, which has $100 million dollars’ worth of cargo on it, fully autonomous, when you can keep humans onboard so they can maintain the ship as it’s going so it doesn’t have to put into port for maintenance? They can deal with difficult and challenging situations. They can safeguard all that cargo. It’s a great example of how, in a way, the machine—the ship, along with the net total of all those cranes and the way ports now operate—has already introduced so much automation into the system and made those humans individually so much more productive. It’s not just diminishing returns—you may have basically reached the end of any returns you will get from further automation, because, at the end of the day, shit happens on the high seas. You want humans onboard to deal with those contingencies.

Look, if a ship is just crossing the trackless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, they can go weeks without visual sighting of another ship. But you take that same ship and you try to make a run through the South China Sea—which you’re probably going to have to do because you’re probably carrying goods to and from Asia—that is a crazy place to have a giant container ship. I put those accounts in my book—there are times when it’s challenging. And, truly, ships do need maintenance. They need somebody to chip off the rust and repaint them. One of the ways they keep these ships running almost 365 days a year for years without having to bring them into a dock for repairs, is that a lot of that painting, cleaning, and maintenance is done by the able-bodied seamen while that ship is at sea. That’s not something you’re going to automate.

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