It’s mid-August, and logistics manager RoxAnne Thomas’s phone won’t stop pinging. Her faucets, sinks, and toilets are waylaid near Shanghai, snagged in Vancouver, and buried under a pile of shipping containers in a rail yard outside Chicago. As U.S. transportation manager for Gerber Plumbing Fixtures LLC, a unit of Taiwan’s Globe Union Industrial Corp. that’s based in Woodridge, Ill., Thomas is trying to overcome the biggest shock wave to unsettle global trade since the dawn of container shipping almost seven decades ago.
The pandemic has thrown the vital but usually humdrum world of logistics into a tailspin, spurring shortages of everything: masks and vaccine vials, semiconductors, plastic polymers, bicycles, and even baseball bobbleheads. For Thomas it’s complicated the shipment of about 10,000 20-foot containers of bathroom equipment she brings into the U.S. each year from China and Mexico, but it has also revealed a bigger, structural challenge.
The system underpinning globalization—production on one side of the planet, connected to consumers on the other by trucks, ships, planes, cranes, and forklifts—is too rigid to absorb today’s rolling tremors from Covid-19, or to recover quickly from the jolts to consumer demand or the labor force. It’s avoided a complete collapse only through a combination of human ingenuity, painfully long hours, and, as Thomas describes a recent success, strategy, mixed with a stroke of luck.