The world gets clock-wise

Fast-forward to stop: checking the role of speed after the World Trade Center

Q: When is a nurse in a tunnel like a canary in a mineshaft?

A: When she's one of the hundreds of Canadian nurses who work every day in southeastern Michigan.

The long hours they've spent in recent weeks queued up to get through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel or across the Ambassador Bridge show how some fundamental assumptions about speed and efficiency in North America have been called into question since Sept. 11.

These nurses number more than 1,500. The hospitals of downtown Detroit, in particular, count on them to staff their emergency rooms, intensive-care units, and other facilities. They - and thousands of other daily transborder commuters - are the human faces of the largest bilateral trade relationship in the world, that between the United States and Canada. It produces well over $1 billion in trade every day.

And that partnership in turn is only one part, albeit a huge one, of global trading systems built on assumptions of speed: easy border crossings, just-in-time deliveries, and shipment by air express of, it may seem, just about anything worth shipping.

All of those assumptions hit a major pothole after Sept. 11.

For nurses like Angela Lambing and Joyce Farrer, that's meant starting their commutes as early as 5 a.m. and even considering renting an apartment in Detroit during the week. For the business community, it's meant preparing to rethink their whole supply chains.

Not surprisingly, the post-attack crunch was felt early on at the border crossings between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, where the waits lasted up to 20 hours right after the terrorist attacks. And even with things back to "quote, normal," as one official puts it, the border communities are feeling the pinch of lost business and continued uncertainty. "We're the canary in the mineshaft," says Linda Smith of the Windsor and District Chamber of Commerce.

But technology got us into this mess, and most knowledgeable observers seem to feel that more technology will get us out: facial recognition technology to screen airport passengers, as is expected to be introduced in Boston within a few weeks; transponders on vehicles to transmit customs data ahead to border checkpoints; tracking systems that let shippers track packages in transit.

Technology has shrunk distance, and that has compressed time. And speed is where companies add value in the New Economy.

"Companies used to compete on price," says John Kasarda, director of the Kenan Institute for Free Enterprise at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Then came "Japanese management" and a focus on quality.

"But now it's speed and agility that determine the winners," he adds. And business competition isn't between companies anymore; it's between supply chains. "Speedy reliable delivery is a matter of value added, not just cost reduction."

Speed not only helps companies compete, it also creates opportunity for the labor force: What Dr. Kasarda and his colleague Jim Johnson describe as "speed-conscious jobs" could fill the same role in today's economy that low-skilled factory jobs used to play: They enabled a man without higher education to support a family. Today, says Dr. Johnson, "we're not going to compete on manufacturing in this country, we're going to compete on logistics."

Kasarda, an expert on aviation in economic development, has found that 42 percent of all world trade by value is shipped by air, compared with less than 2 percent of trade by weight.

"There are 314 border crossings involved in the assembly of a Hewlett-Packard laptop computer," he says.

In the weeks since Sept. 11, businesses have bounced back to "near normal," Kasarda says, even as they may be rethinking their production systems and supply chains. Companies may have to live with four-day lead delivery times instead of three days, he suggests.

"But no way will they go back to two weeks," as was common when manufacturers would stockpile parts for weeks before using them, he says.

Nor are they likely to confine themselves to suppliers close to home over the long run. "The forces of globalization are so powerful that they will overcome the current slowdown."

As border authorities, airports, and others develop new security procedures, the general economic slowdown is giving them a little breathing room.

"Traffic is down a bit," David Jolly, general manager of the Ambassador Bridge, the busiest border crossing in North America, acknowledges. "It's definite that you're going from one country to another now," he adds.

Joyce Farrer, a 22-year veteran of the Henry Ford Hospital, whose drive time used to be 45 minutes either way, reports that border delays have dropped from several hours a day to just about zip lately, as a result of extra staffing by US Customs. "But this emergency plan is just a Band-Aid. "They're working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. They can't keep that up forever," she adds with a sympathy born of familiarity: The commuters and "their" customs agents know one another on sight.

"Since Sept. 17, we've been pretty much back to normal operations," says David Barnas, a Chrysler spokesman in Detroit. He acknowledges that there have been some delays, but they are a matter of "minutes, not hours."

Similarly, General Motors spokesman Tom Wickham reports a return to normal after the drama of directing corporate operations from a situation room staffed 24/7. Lost production came to 10,000 units, he says, "but within a week we were 100 percent back up and running."

Despite the positive public statements, there are signs that the business community is concerned about loss of speed. The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce has 15 staff members a day working on border issues, says its president, Richard Blouse.

And Bill Promisch, director of international business policy for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, sees among his member companies "very broad concerns about the way they do business."

"Just-in-time delivery seems to be the wave of the future," he adds, "but I sense that companies are rethinking their whole logistics."

The business community is also eager to see governments introduce new technologies that will facilitate border crossings. The National Customs Automation Program is "especially near and dear to our hearts at GM," says Mr. Wickham. Introduced on a pilot basis already, it is to be phased in nationwide in 2003-04. But Charles Armstrong, executive director of the Customs Modernization Office, warns that it will need $300-400 million a year from Congress over the next four years.

Unpredictability in the system is the real "wild card" out there, Mr. Primosch says. "Ninety-five percent reliability is not enough." Within the auto industry, a 20-minute delay in delivery can idle a plant.

Noel Greis, a director of the center for logistics and digital strategy at UNC's Kenan Institute, says that some American companies may decide to get components from Mexico instead of Asia, or may rely on nearby ground shippers rather than suppliers who ship by air. She sees time-definite delivery as even more important than speedy delivery. "Fast is good, but too fast is not." Components that show up before they're needed disrupt production.

Are we really sure "fast" is where it's at?

After Sept. 11, everything slowed down - in human as well as economic terms - a function of grieving, of mourning. Some observers have suggested that this is a time for a change of tempo, a less intense lifestyle.

History is not on their side.

Stephen Kern of Northern Illinois University, author of "The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918," has seen the future - and it is faster.

"No one wants to go slower. The notion that people are going to be in shock because of constant change is nonsense.

"People don't go into shock because their world is changing too fast. People go into shock because they're bored and stagnant.

"The historical record is clear: The world has never opted to slow down."

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

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