Commentary: Commoditizing and shipping air bubbles

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates. 

A funny paradox says that there is a particular restaurant that is so busy nobody bothers to go there anymore. Well, after the siege of sheltering at home is lifted in various cities and states, perhaps hungry patrons will start to revisit these once busy restaurants. Some see wisdom in crowds and others wish to be “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.” We should expect a bit of both as businesses, beaches and parks gear up after government-mandated closures.

People will once again come into closer contact. Closeness will be dictated by how much risk each person is willing to take. Some will continue social distancing by maintaining bubbles of air around them measuring about six feet in diameter. Some will wear masks in public places to filter out what is aerosolized around them and likewise prevent their own breath from causing harm to others. Some will carry gloves, hand sanitizer, etc. Of course, some may choose to do none of these things.

(Photo credit: Centers for Disease Contol and Prevention)

Whether we like it or not we are all connected – some of us directly and practically all of us indirectly. Be it “six degrees of separation” or thereabouts, the point is that people who are not self-sufficient and living off-grid have co-dependencies. Sovereign nations, markets and supply chains are created to share the rewards that come from common goals and commercial trade. Unfortunately, risks often accompany those rewards. Different attitudes to risks are the costs of living in a free society.

Risk is measurable if one takes the time to do so. It is, therefore, probabilistic and controllable. Uncertainly, on the other hand, is not measurable and cannot be controlled. Since there is so much still to understand about how COVID-19 spreads, it is the knowing that we do not know something important that is worrying. There is risk associated with being around someone who is showing symptoms. But what about those who are asymptomatic? They would be risky to be around, if only we knew the risk. But they are indistinguishable from the uninfected, so we do not know and are left to worry about it. On the other hand, some promote the concept of herd immunity meaning that exposure among more people helps build antibodies in their systems and makes society more resilient.

Dealing with uncertainty is faith-based. One way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is to act as if everyone is infected. Not only is that hard to enforce in a free society, there are too many exceptions involving family members. In any case, many people are reconsidering their own spaces, meaning the bubbles of air around them. We are starting to treat these auras as something of a property right.

Why physically attend business meetings? Millions of meetings have been moved online via platforms like Zoom and Skype. It certainly helps that Zoom, for example, offers unlimited one-on-one virtual meetings and keeps them free of charge for groups of 100 or less who meet for no more than 40 minutes. Yet this online risk mitigation has certainly strained business travel, hotel stays, restaurant bookings, etc. Also, these virtual meetings are not impromptu since they are scheduled and are often by invitation only. Sometimes eavesdroppers and interlopers around the old water cooler or in the hallways can add value through informal meetings.

Those in the workspace may begin to see physical or virtual boundaries placed between workers. This respects the person’s right to an air bubble; but it also maintains the health – and, more to the point, the productivity – of those still on the job. Of course, more needed space and designated boundaries mean more overhead costs, which may spur the drive to automation that started long before the current pandemic.

(Photo credit: Port of Antwerp)

The Port of Antwerp, the second busiest in Europe, has been experimenting with digital bracelets worn by port workers. Not only do these bracelets send signals (i.e., vibrations) to warn about encroachment, they can also manage contact tracing – essentially monitoring COVID-19’s spread and pin-pointing degrees of separation between the infected. Rombit, the device manufacturer, is looking to expand its market to multiple companies across the world. Naturally, issues of privacy and how the behavioral data is to be stored and used will be important issues in all democratic countries.

Ironically, automation has increased the amount of air shipped from origin to destination. Those who are regular users of e-commerce have no doubt received an item tucked away in a much larger box insulated with overly generous amounts of bubble wrap. Sometimes the individual bubbles of air are just as large as the single item in the box. Is it wasteful to ship all that air and extra volume? Well, if capacity utilization is the goal (i.e., maximizing revenue-earning items per unit of space) it would be wasteful. But e-commerce giants like Amazon do not mind shipping air in this way because its goal is speed to the customer. Also, these companies ship so much and so often that they receive favorable freight rates. In that regard, tossing an item into a comparatively large box with a bed of bubble wrap and another layer tossed on top for good measure is quick and easy for workers at fast-paced distribution centers (DCs). Elegant and tightly packaged items take more time.

UPS, having received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration in November 2019, is expanding its drone delivery program. It announced that beginning in May it will be using drones to deliver CVS prescriptions to one of Florida’s most famous retirement communities, The Villages. While the flight path is expected to be only half a mile and deliveries will be made to a single pick-up area, there is no doubt that opportunities for further customization will be explored. The intent is to avoid human contact between the DC and the customer – just a drone and some air.

As the U.S. slowly "opens" what changes will take place in supply chains, businesses and the workplace?
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

There are more subtle reasons to ship air. Consider how an HP inkjet cartridge is packaged. It has a thin flap at the top which is used to allow the package to hang nicely from the hooks on retail display shelves. The package is also angular, which means that the solid rectangular inkjet cartridge inside shares sections of empty space. Why ship these bubbles of air and why not make the package form-fitting? The reason is that these larger and awkwardly shaped packages are harder to shop-lift via a quick drop into one’s side pocket. HP and their retail partners devote more risk avoidance to pilferage than to ease of shipping.

Managing trade-offs is a form of risk management and so is balancing the need for employee distancing and the cost of business space. As for e-commerce customers, they need to manage the trade-off from playfully popping bubble wrap and breathing in the air released from who knows where. The temptation will be very hard to resist!