Since mankind first learned the principles of commerce, the transport and sale of goods has been a necessity. Camel trains, ships, trucks and trains have all played their part, but it is actually the humble cargo container which has had the greatest impact on modern commerce. So today we salute the passing of one of the first Masters of Supply Chain Management, Keith Tantlinger.
Back in 1955 the trucking magnate Malcolm McLean was looking at ways to reduce his costs and thereby make his haulage service cheaper and attractive to customers. As part of his grand scheme, McLean bought the Waterman Steamship Corporation with a view to creating a drive-on drive-off system which would allow him to ship trucks to cities up and down the East Coast. McLean calculated that the time and fuel economies of such an operation would save his customers nearly 75% on their current haulage costs. However, McLean realised that the trucks themselves would waste valuable space, reducing the amount of cargo shippable at any one time.
Realising he could not find the solution he wanted himself, McLean turned the problem over to Keith Tantlinger, then vice president of engineering at Brown Industries, the company which supplied McLean with trucks. Taking existing shipping crates as inspiration, Tantlinger set to work creating a reusable variant which would protect customer goods in transit and which could be stacked in the ship’s hold, one on top of the other.
The result of Tantlinger’s experiments is the shipping containers we see in their hundreds of thousands criss-crossing the globe today. Tantlinger created a number of safety devices and innovations, such as the eyelets and twist-locks which join containers together and keep them in place when loaded onto a ship. Tantlinger also redesigned the cranes which load and unload ships so that they could use the same eyelet system, standardising fittings and reducing the load-unload times in dock.
These new shipping containers also allowed for accurate shipping cost calculations, cargo load balancing, and better protection of customer goods from general pilfering by dock handlers. However, the major coup of Tantlinger’s containers was the massive reduction in shipping costs that all of these innovations allowed. Shipping of goods is now a tiny part of the overall production cost, and it is almost the same price to transport goods from anywhere in the World to anywhere else. No longer are shipping costs calculated in terms of geographical distances between points (as was the case in McLean’s original haulage model). Instead they are now calculated on weight. As a result, it costs roughly the same to ship 1 tonne of goods between Holland and Harwich as it does to ship from Beijing to Birmingham.
Such was the success of Tantlinger’s revolutionary stackable shipping containers that they eventually became an ISO standard, cementing his place in the Supply Chain Management Pantheon of Masters. The modern shipping container paved the way for truly globalised commerce and for that we have Keith Tantlinger to thank.