Amazon-for-bulk-commodity is coming
“Uber for X”? That’s so 2018. Let’s just move on. Or down. Or behind?
We all know that container ships move mountains of stuff from one side of the planet to another. What much less people know is that, as huge as it is, the container industry is the small guy of shipping. There is an industry four times larger by volume that forms the building blocks of global trade and drives container traffic: maritime bulk shipping, that is the ships carrying around oil, grain, liquefied natural gas and other raw materials of all sorts:
As you can read here, there is a company, called Voyager, that wants to enable the bulk commodity shipping market to operate in “a unified and digital environment, to coordinate critical and complex maritime operations for high value raw materials”.
Voyager wants to “modernize and optimize the massive bulk shipping ecosystem” with seamless, multi-party collaboration to help companies grow their sales and eliminate costly operational errors.
In practice, Voyagers customers may handle and track every phase of any shipping of their goods, in any moment, through one web interface. Finding a ship, renting it, making sure it is compliant, handling all the payments and custom paperwork, port procedures, finding buyers or sellers.. Voyagers automatizes and hides all this work, as much as possible, with great gains in efficiency, and consequent savings.
Freight trucking? Check that, too!
Other companies are already working on offering similar services at other levels of the supply chain, for example shipping by trucks.
In October 2018, freight trucking startup Shipwell got a $10 million boost to something pretty similar, in spirit if nothing else, to what Voyager is doing with ships.
Shipwell “combines a [digital] marketplace for shippers to connect with freight companies and online tools to manage those shipments”.
In practice, Shipwell says to any small and medium retailer or outlet that they may use the same kind of “logistics management toolkit that has made Amazon so successful”. Companies declare what they need to ship, when and where. Shipwell “coordinates the freight, pays the truckers, helps optimize the fleets”.
More control, quicker collapse?
At first sight, Voyager and Shipwell are nothing but two more “Uber-for-X” companies, where “X” is bulk maritime shipping in one case, and freight trucking in the other. But Voyager and Shipwell are not porting the Uber model to the “next” level. They are porting it back, or down, to the lower, basic levels. The levels that literally make the whole world going. Voyager, especially, wants to ship oil, grain etc.. like Amazon ships shirts and books.
There are two big problems here.
The customers of Voyager (and, in a next phase, those of Shipwell too) are not selling videogames, online courses or any other “immaterial” goods. They almost literally sell whole mountains of physical matter. Moving stuff more efficiently? By all means go ahead and do it. But moving more stuff? “Help to grow the sales” of companies like those means to actively work against the urgent advice of (at least) plenty of scientists.
Another issue that would be a really serious concern even if there were no environmental downsides is control.
Today, Amazon has a stranglehold on worldwide retail of goods that, in almost all cases, are not needed for our daily survival. Tomorrow, if Voyager and Shipwell succeed, and maybe even merge, we would have one private, for-profit organization with the same stranglehold on the raw matters that literally keep both humans and machines alive.
Services like Voyager and Shipwell have more than a lot of positive potential. They are probably necessary. But only if they become, just like Amazon should, SLOW, OPEN standards.
Voyager may help implementing fair rationing, once a definition of fair rationing has been found without bloodbaths. But even if rationing never becomes necessary, services like these must be open standards that allow multiple, fully independent players of all sizes cooperate. They must not become a single point of failure and control.