Salads, shipping containers, and subtle signs of a supply chain reset

18.14, Friday 16 Apr 2021

I’m into the idea of Unilever’s shipping container nano-factories:

Inside a 40-foot shipping container parked in the Dutch town of Wageningen, the global base for Unilever’s food and refreshment business, there will soon be a fully functioning production line for the consumer goods company’s liquid bouillon. By making the product in a shrunken-down space, the company hopes to reduce its carbon footprint, produce less waste, and eventually be able to ship these nano-factories to new spots around the world so they can take advantage of local ingredients.

And I wonder how the supply/demand/carbon footprint maths works: does it make sense, when summer starts, to airdrop shipping container ice cream factories directly into hot zones? Local milk and a materials hopper at one end, solar panels on the roof, and tasty frozen snacks out at the other…

Then, when the temperature drops, move the factories elsewhere.

Perhaps you could hang nano-factories on slow-moving blimps, situated at the Lagrange points between suppliers and customers, and drift them around as the market changes throughout the year.


Europe’s Biggest Vertical Farm Will Be Powered by Wind and Planted by Robots (Singularity Hub): The new facility is in Denmark, in an area called Taastrup outside of Copenhagen. At 7,000 square meters (just over 73,000 square feet), it will be the biggest vertical farm in Europe. Crops will grow in stacks 14 layers high and will use more than 20,000 LED lights.

It’s for growing salad. Output will reach 1,000 ton/yr by end 2021.

It’s complex: 5,000 different data points are consulted to optimise growth. Which means…

  • It’s efficient: greens will reportedly be grown using just one liter of water per kilogram of produce, which is a whopping 250 times less than what’s used in traditional agriculture.
  • The greens are green: And all that light from the LEDs? It’ll come from electricity generated by wind.

Fruit and vegetables are notorious for being shipped in from thousands of miles away. This means they can be grown locally.

Get this: only 20 of these facilities would allow Denmark to become ‘self-sufficient in salads and herbs.’

Also I love the idea of a multi-storey cube, encrusted with wind turbines, on the outskirts of every major town, a semi-autonomous Salad Assembly Building sipping water and emitting a continuous stream of cool, fresh greens.

I’m watching this space because last year I asked: Perhaps China’s centralised supply chain won’t last forever (April 2020).

My key example at the time was the micro-factory approach of EV truck manufacturer Arrival, more about which in this article:

Arrival says it has kept a lid on costs thanks to its ‘micro-factory’ production plan. Essentially, it plans to set up a network of small factories globally optimised to produce around 10,000 vans a year each, or 2000 buses. …

This gives Arrival adaptability in a way that huge plants with a single line can’t, he said. The polypropylene body panels are moulded in the required colours on site, removing the need for expensive paint shops or stamping machines. ‘Cells’ in the plant assemble different elements that plug into the skateboard chassis.

The factories will be closer to end customers and, because they don’t demand a huge number of workers, can be placed near smaller cities.

My point in that piece was that the calculus of supply chains might be more fragile than it looks.

  • Maybe modern software lifts the complexity limit on supply chains. Perhaps Arrival’s network of micro-factories is no harder to manage, in 2021, than a single centralised plant was in the 1970s?
  • Maybe consumers will demand that carbon is priced in. If the environmental externalities were fully factored in, maybe Unilever’s shipping container factories would actually end up looking cheaper than giant centralised plant?

And here’s another data point: I was talking a couple weeks back about the Suez Canal as a newly apparent global infrastructure risk. Well I didn’t expect it to become apparent like this:

Supply chain issues and the popularity of garden centres during lockdown are causing a shortage of garden gnomes.

The ornaments are in short supply with raw materials hard to come by and the recent blockage of the Suez Canal contributing to the national shortage.

And: We haven’t seen a gnome in six months now unfortunately.

(Thanks Steve Portigal for the pointer on Twitter.)

If you run a just-in-time supply chain - maybe not gnomes but perhaps construction equipment - surely you’re now doing calculations on resilience, and you might just choose to have a supplier nearby than halfway round the world.

It could be that only a few numbers need to change, and suddenly factories will be on our doorsteps again, providing jobs, improving transparency, reducing alienation between consumers and the methods of production, lowering carbon footprint…

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is this solarpunk yoghurt commercial.

Seriously, watch it if you haven’t already. It’s a 30 second, animated vision of humans and robot living, eating, and farming together, wind turbines on blimps, a Veridian future-pastoral world from – Chobani, which makes yoghurt. Because of course.

So there’s hope, is what I’m saying:

It’s worth pushing at the numbers because the calculus could be near a tipping point, and it’s worth illustrating and demonstrating the better possible futures because the people with the supply chains in their Excel spreadsheets might just be looking for de-risked safe harbours.

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