Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 19, 2021

Life in the Supply Chain: Supplemental

In my previous post, I provided a high-level survey of some challenges facing the world’s ports as they scale up to clear away an unprecedented backlog of ships laden with cargo, many of them stalled off the coasts of nearly every continent, while demand builds. That’s what’s been called the “supply chain” problem,” if you’ve been following the news.

My example — because it’s just down the street from me — was the combined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Together, those ports manage nearly 40 per cent of the maritime shipping in and out of the United States.

With only minor variations, the story is the same at all ports, not only in the U.S., but worldwide: That kitchen gadget, your hoped-for refrigerator or bottle of olive oil is packed into a 20- or 40-foot shipping container, which — along with 20,000 other containers — is sitting on a ship that’s parked outside a port in Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, Galveston, Savannah, Norfolk or … anywhere.

The photo above shows only one portion of one of the many freight terminals at the combined southern California ports. Tens of thousands of containers are being shifted daily, to and from ships, onto trucks and railroad trains.

How can it even be possible to move one container from a ship to land, then to the correct warehouse or distributor in order to show up on the shelf in your store?

At one level, the answer is simple: Every container has a unique number. Somewhere, in some database, someone knows the contents of that container and where it should go.

The trick, of course, is to get the right container onto the correct truck, train or ship to get it to your store.

How good are they?

From a vantage point above that freight terminal, I watched one forklift operator for about five minutes.

In the photo below, I’m looking at the far right side of that mass of containers in the photo above.

The fork lift operator has set a container measuring 20 feet by 8 feet (6.1m x 2.44m) on a stack of similar boxes.

Take a moment to look at that field of containers. Someone — not I — knows not only where each one of them is, but what’s in them.

Then, by means unknown to ordinary mortals, the forklift operator knows precisely where to go to place the NEXT 20-foot container onto the NEXT stack.

There, just in time, as the management handbooks advise, a truck pulls up with precisely the container that should be exactly there.

The forklift operator picks the container off the chassis and places it where it belongs.

Someone knows it’s there. It may be your olive oil. Or it might be 10,000 boxes of Legos, bound for toy stores.

On the comms channel, a dispatcher sends the truck driver back into the queue to pick up another container. Another dispatcher sends the forklift operator to the next spot to offload another container.

The dance goes on, and never stops. Ships float in and out, lifts and cranes, trucks and railroads roll, and we have our shopping lists in hand. Furniture? A new laptop? A new car? No! I need olive oil. Where’s the darned olive oil? The one from Italy, not Spain, Portugal or Greece.

Meanwhile, in a thousand ports across the globe, from Tianjin and Shanghai to Tacoma, San Diego or Savannah, a million other containers are being offloaded from ships, stacked up in freight yards, taken off trucks or placed onto other trucks or railroad cars and moved across continents.

Eventually, you pull that bottle of olive oil off the shelf in your local grocery store.

How did it get there?

Looking out at the port, I have to admit, I have no idea where to find the olive oil.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. One photo courtesy of M. Vincent, copyright 2021. All rights reserved.


  1. This raises the question of how merchants and shippers and truckers kept track of everything before we had computer databases and practically instant communication.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steve, according to anecdotal evidence (me, asking around), one of the highest paid jobs in the ports is that of “clerk.”
      One cannot imagine knowing where your bottle of olive oil or your shipment of computer chips is if you don’t have someone who has his or her eyes on some massive database of what’s in, what’s out, or what’s in transit.


  2. The Port of Houston container terminals have what’s called a Terminal Toolbox. Scroll down a bit, and you’ll find this:

    “Want to know the status of your container? Visit our customer portal or mobile customer access app.”

    If we knew your olive oil’s container number, we could pinpoint it in short order.

    By the way — here’s an anecdote about the whole process that may amuse you. Although Galveston is considered part of the Port of Houston, the amount of containerized shipping there is somewhat limited. In fact, when the largest cruise ships are in port, there isn’t any room for container ships. They either wait in the anchorage or head to another terminal (except for Dole, which unloads bananas and such in Galveston).

    What that means for those who love to visit Galveston but dislike the crowds associated with cruise ships is that the trucks hauling containers north from Galveston are a sign. They’re saying, “The container ships are unloading, because the cruise ships are gone. Come on down!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great local tip! And yes, same here: bananas (etc) have to come off the ship, pronto.


  3. Wow, thats a lot of cargo at the port!! I really like the photo of the palm trees and 3 shipping containers.

    Liked by 1 person

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