Breakthrough innovation, courtesy of the military. Part 1: the roots of containerization and intermodal transportation.
When you think about innovative organizations, which one comes to mind? Amazon? Facebook? Apple?
How about DoD? The Department of Defense has been a relentless early adopter of new logistics technologies and strategies. In the science and practice of logistics, the military – yes, the people who brought us the $435 claw hammer, the $640 toilet seat and $7,600 coffee makers – has throughout history often led the way in developing, nurturing, and implementing crucial tools and practices that have eventually proved crucial for the business world.
In logistics we make use of innovations, every day, brought to us by the defense establishment. Containerization and intermodal transportation are an obvious example.
Containerization and intermodal transportation are deeply imbedded in the way the world moves goods today. The commercial breakthrough for containers happened in the mid-50’s, brought about by visionary trucking executive Malcom McLean. After building and selling a successful motor carrier operation, McLean Trucking, he purchased the steamship line U.S. Lines and led the way in developing the container ships shippers now take for granted.
McLean deserves enormous credit for that, but in fact, the initial development of containerized transportation came from the U.S. Army, driven by the exigencies of war.
In the latter part of World War II, the Army used something they called “transporters”-- standardized boxes that were really mini containers--to speed the loading and unloading of cargo ships going back and forth from Europe. When the Korean conflict came along, the military started using the “transporters” for sensitive military equipment heading to the Pacific Rim. In 1952 the Army began using the term CONEX, short for "container express," instead of “transporters.” The first major shipment of CONEXes, containing engineering supplies and spare parts, moved by rail from the Columbus General Depot in Georgia to the Port of San Francisco, then by ship to Yokohama, Japan, and then to Korea, in late 1952.
Innovations in military logistics will keep on coming, and commercial applications are sure to follow. Delivery drones are already in use at the Marine Corps. Driverless cargo trucks are being tested by the Army. Field deployable 3D printing capabilities went forward in Afghanistan.
More ideas, still on the military drawing board, some in development, are certain to follow. The Army is rolling out leading edge virtual reality combat simulators, to train people in battlefield conditions without an actual battlefield. Perhaps we’ll train truck drivers the same way, taking a totally different approach.
What the military has learned over the years is that creativity by itself is insufficient, that better is sometimes not good enough. The drive for different – innovating an entirely new approach – may be what is required to win the battle, or even the war.