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Life On A Barge January 12, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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5 comments

My company ships some of our products by barge, up and down the Mississippi river.  When you ship things by barge, people are naturally inclined to ask things like “Where is my barge?”  Answering that question is more difficult than you might think.

Barges are extremely low-tech devices.  They are nothing more than an enormous steel bucket, floating in the river.  They are moved about by tugboats, and a single tug can have as many as 30 barges lashed to it as it moves up and down the river.  Sometimes a barge will break loose and float away, coming to rest in some nook or cranny of the mighty Mississippi.  Most barges are owned by a few companies, and you rent your barges from one of these companies.  You might rent a barge for a single trip, or for many trips over a period of time.

Being a technology kind of guy, I had an instant answer for the barge question.  Just attach a GPS transmitter to each barge, and collect position data in real time.  Put a snazzy web site in front of the data, enable authorized user access, and you’re good to go!

(This was a few years ago, so these days I’d include a barge Twitter stream, a barge blog or two, a barge-cam streaming live to Hulu, and an app [iBarge?] so you can track a barge from your iPhone.  If there was time, maybe even an app that would identify a barge using a picture you snapped from the shore using your phone.  Not to mention a search engine that looks for #barge hashtags on Twitter and aggregates them, along with matching Flickr barge photos, on trackmybarge.com. Web 2.0 really enhances the whole barge management experience in ways that Mark Twain could only dream of.)

I pitched this plan to the barge people, and the idea quickly sank.  First, barges have no power source.  This meant that the GPS unit had to be battery powered with solar charging panels.  Second, barges get banged around a lot, so the unit had to be hardened and waterproof, and would need to be welded somewhere on the top edge of the barge.  The rough estimate for such a unit was $1,000 each, which worked out to a $1,000,000 investment to outfit a fleet of 1,000 barges.  This didn’t  include the whole web and data infrastructure, or programming effort.  (Not to mention the blogs, webcams, and Facebook app that would soon follow.)

A bit miffed, I aked how they currently track the barges.  Easy: each morning a clerk calls each of our tugboat pilots on their cellphone.  She asks them where they are, and they reply with a mile number on the river.  She knows which barges are tied to each tug, and she writes each barge number and the mile marker on an index card that she puts on a bulletin board in the office.  If you want to know where the barges are you, you can stop by the board or call her.

Just as importantly, the pilots like to be called each morning.  It’s nice to hear from the home office, and a friendly voice on the phone is a pleasant way to start each day.

The clerk makes $25,000 a year.  My solution pays for itself in 40 years.  Analysis over; project cancelled.

As we get completely wrapped up in applying technology to everything we encounter, it helps to remember that some things work fine just as they are.  And in the end, processes that work because people like to hear each other’s voices are probably worth keeping, even if only for a little while longer.