14 October 2009


iPods across oceans and continents

When we sold our old laptop recently, we used the money to buy a couple of iPod touches for our kids. I know, we spoil them terribly and all that. Ours is a geek house. Get used to it. (And if you're interested in their old iPod nanos, those are for sale too—let me know.)

Ordering online, I presumed (naively) that while the iPods are of course made in China, there would probably be a North American distribution centre where they are individually laser engraved and then shipped to customers here. But Apple and UPS let you track your order. Ours shipped directly out of China, and the results are a bit depressing.

There's been a lot of hoopla about Apple pulling out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the Chamber's poor climate-change policies, Apple's greener laptops made with more recyclable materials, and so on, but I have to wonder whether many of those efforts are being negated by the insanely inefficient transport routes taken by items shipped from the online Apple Store.

Although I ordered two identical devices (with separate custom engraving on the back of each) at the same time, as part of the same order, here's how the two iPods are getting to our house:

  • iPod #1: Shanghai, China → Anchorage, Alaska → Louisville, Kentucky → Buffalo, New York → Mount Hope, Ontario → Winnipeg, Manitoba → Calgary, Alberta → Richmond, B.C. → Burnaby, B.C.
  • iPod #2: Shanghai, China → Anchorage, Alaska → Louisville, Kentucky → Lachine, Québec → Montréal, Québec → Mount Hope, Ontario → Calgary, Alberta → Richmond, B.C. → Burnaby, B.C

Same order, same type of device, same factory. But apparently, the most cost-effective way to get them to me was to send them together from Shanghai to Anchorage to Louisville, then to separate them, sending one via New York, Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta, and the other via Québec, Ontario, and Alberta. Both passed through Mount Hope and Calgary, but at different times. They're both now in Richmond on the way here to Burnaby, hopefully on the same truck (but I'm not sure of that—see below for an unimpressive update).

It's about 9,000 km direct from Shanghai to Vancouver by plane, but on these routes each iPod has traveled almost twice that far (around 17,000 km) by plane and truck, with takeoffs, landings, and transfers. I know the packages are small, but the price of shipping that way can't possibly be taking into account the relative energetic and environmental costs of the two routes.

Never mind that, by essentially excluding environmental effects, it's less expensive to manufacture the iPods an ocean away to start with. How do these transactions add up, when you multiply them by the millions?

If we're interested in ameliorating climate change, I think that we'll have to address the mismatch between the monetary efficiency and energetic inefficiency of these haphazard transportation methods. But that will likely mean that our gadgets will get more expensive in the short term, in order to make our lives more tolerable in the long term. I have a feeling that, with our generally shortsighted human thinking, we might not be willing to accept that.

And that's a bit of a bummer.

UPDATE 11:30 a.m.: There's something amusing about the situation now. Both iPods arrived at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond before sunrise this morning, after making their way halfway around the world, rapid-fire, in five days. But they've now, apparently, been sitting at YVR, about 12 km away from my house, for three and a half hours without being loaded on a truck, because of "adverse weather conditions." What are those conditions? It's raining a bit. In Vancouver, in the autumn.

FURTHER UPDATE 2:00 p.m.: Delivery. Of one of the iPods. They were both at the airport, both supposedly delayed by weather (though it's sunny now), and one got put on a truck and arrived at the house a few minutes ago. The other one, presumably, is coming on another truck. Point reinforced. Next time I'll buy retail, where I can at least assume that two of the same product from the same batch came to the store in the same vehicle.

FINAL UPDATE 5:00 p.m.: The delay of the second shipment at YVR is a mystery even to the friendly UPS phone rep. It will be delivered tomorrow, taking longer to travel the 12 km from the airport to my house than it did to traverse the 3500 km from Ontario to the West Coast yesterday.

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I've always found the economics of shipping/manufacturing obtuse and mind-boggling. And fascinating. Your shipping example adds another layer of crazy/interesting. Given there's still a large number of people who don't think we're undergoing climate change, I don't hold much hope for a rapid response to ameliorate it.
Unbelievably Poor Service
Don't get me started. At least they didn't try to charge me brokerage fees.
I remember once tracking a package that was with UPS and freaking when I saw it had gone from Richmond to Halifax, when it was due to come to me - in Vancouver. I called UPS to ask what was with that, and I was told that although the tracking said it was in Halifax, it really was still in Richmond. For whatever reason the tracking facility was in Halifax and it was noted as going through that facility when it was tracked. Perhaps that is what happened here.
Perhaps, but since Customs clearance would need to take place, I assume that would happen during the Kentucky-Quebec or New York-Ontario leg. And it would fail to explain both the different apparent routes within the U.S. and Canada for the two devices (which seem to lead to different delivery times here in Burnaby)—what are the chances that there are shipping or IT hubs in all those places, mistakenly identifying the iPods as having passed through them?

Also, the various reported scan times make sense in terms of flight lengths between destinations. I'm pretty sure the iPods really did hop their way something like 17,000 km to reach me.
Since the courier companies use those containers that they fill and then load into the planes & considering the iPods both arrived in just about the same amount of time, it almost makes me wonder if the smaller packages are used as "filler" in the shipping containers to maximize the space usage.

Filling those containers up efficiently is like a puzzle but given they know the dimensions of each package going through it's entirely possible that an algorithm split them up to fill all available space knowing they should have arrived at the same time.

(But I must say I'm surprised there's apparently no west coast points beside Alaska that these went through)
Interesting idea. Then again, the two iPods together would still be a pretty compact package, about half the size of a shoebox, and would probably fit into a little pocket as a unit pretty well too. I found it odd that they were sent off in separate boxes to start with.

By the way, they're both here now.
I don't quite understand your angst over the delivery process. Since they didn't see fit to charter a flight from the factory to your house, they had to fit them into their existing transport schedule, certainly created some time ago based on expected needs today that perhaps didn't take into account your high-volume order.

So maybe in KY the pallet with the first one was just able to make it onto the flight to NY, but the pallet with the second one didn't? So the 2nd one goes on whatever pre-schedule flight will get it to you most quickly. How is this surprising, much less a big deal?

I once ordered two book, "2nd Day Air", that were shipped from a site in NY, one to Ohio and one to Japan. The one to Japan was shipped a couple of hours AFTER the one to Ohio, but arrived TWO DAYS before the one to Ohio. The one to Ohio took four days, but because two were weekend days, FedEx considered it on time. Crazy stuff.

Will you preload the kids' Nanos with some of your music? It's good stuff, but I can imagine one's own kids might fail to appreciate it properly :-)
A teleporter would make things much easier.

Indeed, given the likelihood the fuel is going to be expended anyway on flights, and these iPod packages were simply slotted into the existing transportation flow, it's probably vastly more efficient than it looks. The only part that was really wasteful could be routing the same truck to my house on two different days, and I'm not even sure how far out of his way the delivery guy had to go to do that.

It's a modern miracle that we can build, customize, and move things around the world so quickly anyway. Maybe my mind is still stuck in a pre-aircraft, pre-just-in-time age, where traveling 17,000 km really was at least twice as hard as traveling 9,000 -- and both were immensely difficult in any case.

But I do wonder whether how drastically moving all that stuff around constantly is helping to accelerate our climatic doom.