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In Full Flow

Today’s consumer society wouldn’t have developed without our ability to transport goods efficiently. UZH historian Monika Dommann has explored the history of logistics and the movement of materials.
Tanja Wirz; English translation by Philip Isler
Stapler in Lagerraum
Quick and efficient: euro-pallets and forklifts have revolutionized logistical processes.

As long as the flow of goods continues, we’re unlikely to spend time thinking about what it takes for a product we’ve ordered online to arrive at our doorstep. You could almost believe it happens fully automatically, as if by magic. This, of course, was before the pandemic threw a spanner in the works. Suddenly, people could no longer be sure that pharmacies still had the medicine they so urgently needed, or whether their new work laptop would be available, or when the e-bike they had ordered to take the edge off lockdown could be delivered. And then, as if to drive home the point that yes, supply chains were indeed disrupted, the Ever Given, one the largest container ships in the world, ran aground in the Suez Canal in March 2021, blocking one of the most important global trade routes for nearly a week.

Aptly, an aerial image of the ship lodged in the canal now adorns the book Materialfluss. Eine Geschichte der Logistik an den Orten ihres Stillstands (“Flow of Materials. A History of Logistics in the Places It Stands Still”) written by UZH historian Monika Dommann. Her multi-faceted examination of logistical processes shows what it takes for goods to find their way from the production line to our homes. Our current consumer society couldn’t exist without modern logistics, which developed from 1850 onwards as a result of new industrialized mass production methods and the railway. Substantial loads of goods had to be transported over great distances. In addition, manufacturing processes for some items, such as those in the textile industry, were spread out across different countries or regions of the world. It’s not surprising that this led to coordination and control issues that needed to be solved.

Waste not

According to a common perception, logistics came about because of modern warfare. But Monika Dommann dismisses this idea, which she says is based on a pop culture version of history that is often repeated and not entirely wrong. A much more important development, Dommann says, was the introduction of manufacturing processes that greatly increased efficiency in the US in the early 20th century. These processes revolutionized mass production by introducing assembly lines, scientific management and piecework employment. “Above all, logistics is also an attempt to expand these new, rationalized processes to the delivery of goods.” The aim was to waste as little time and especially labor on the assembly lines on the factory floor, but also in warehouses and when transporting raw materials and finished products. This meant that processes had to be standardized at an international level, the UZH historian explains.

As a research topic, logistics has been largely ignored by economic historians. This gap has now been filled by Dommann and her study. To find an entry point to this constantly moving subject matter, she decided to focus on the moments in which goods stopped moving – but not involuntarily, such as in the case of the Ever Given. Instead, the researcher examined our material culture, that is, the objects created by logistical processes. Her book features case studies on the warehouse, the pallet, packaging material and what is known as kanban cards, which are used to organize just-in-time production processes that originated in Japan.

Warehouses of steel

“Logistics experts love solving problems,” says Dommann. Fittingly, her book presents a number of practice-oriented solutions, for example the vast warehouses that could be built thanks to newly invented reinforced concrete and that were planned based on function over form. So-called mushroom slabs, developed by Swiss architect Robert Maillart, played a key part in these structures. Admittedly, these odd-looking constructs will likely only be known to architecture aficionados. In contrast, from 1900 onwards a different kind of warehouse received a great deal of public attention in literary works, films and plays: American grain elevators. These iconic structures became symbols of the prairie landscape – or were considered towering reminders of a capitalist system run amok in which people bet on crop yields and potential famines.

The euro-pallet as a political symbol

The new efficient warehouses were also characterized by an object that, in addition to its actual logistical use, is now often repurposed into lounge chairs, bed frames or vertical flower beds. As such, it has become the ubiquitous symbol of an alternative urban lifestyle: the pallet. In her book, Dommann examines the complex process that was needed to norm the transportation of goods and establish a standard European pallet, dubbed the Euro-pallet – after all, this also meant that the vans and trucks, the packaging as well as the products had to be precisely measured to fit the dimensions of these portable platforms.

According to Dommann, the Euro-pallet was even elevated to the status of a political symbol of a unified Europe: in 2016, then-UK prime minister David Cameron stood on a pallet to deliver a speech as part of his campaign to remain in the EU. Logistics firms were quick to embrace pallets, as they helped them save labor costs.  “Be wise – palletize!” was the often-heard motto in advertising campaigns.

Meanwhile, warehouse workers were told to see this development as an opportunity to acquire new skills and improve their employability by training as forklift drivers, for example. Ads for fully automated high-bay warehouses delivered an equally ambivalent message, peddling the dream of logistical processes that no longer depended on human labor, almost like the natural flow of a river. However, this ideal of fully automated logistics is yet to materialize. Logistics workers often remain unseen, for example the many truck drivers from low-wage countries who go about their jobs in a precarious kind of pseudo self-employment.

South-bound freight trains

Monika Dommann’s study illustrates that logistics, with its hard-to-grasp processes, may not always be visible but is still pervasive. Where does the historian’s fascination with the subject come from? Dommann grew up on Lake Zug. “In the village where I grew up, the trains heading south towards the Gotthard railway tunnel were a daily fixture,” she says. “My father was the local schoolteacher and would often show us plants along the train tracks that had been randomly imported together with goods from all over the world, growing roots in our village. So in a way, logistics has always been a part of my life.”

Portrait Dommann

The production of goods and consumption need to be brought back closer together.

Monika Dommann

The topic is also of great interest to her students. “The younger generation, however, has their own view of the topic, a very critical one,” she adds. Packaging materials are no longer primarily seen as geometrically perfect solutions to efficiency problems or as symbols of unification, but as items that cause CO2 emissions and drive the climate crisis. “The production of goods and consumption need to be brought back closer together,” believes Dommann. The crisis of logistics caused by the pandemic not only increased profits for logistics companies but also showed us that it is high time that we critically reflect on the global flow of goods that has become such a staple of our everyday lives.