Toilet Paper

The folks at 99% Invisible podcast must be scrambling, and their scrambles are totally worth it.

A few episodes ago, there was a brief digression where Roman Mars said something about the toilet paper supply chain being mostly automated, and a few other things that made me suspect they were preparing an episode about how America receives its favorite under-appreciated fiber product. Now, it’s out, and (as you’d expect) it’s pretty good.

They don’t go into the details about how the toilet paper supply chain is managed, but as usual for a 99% Invisible episode, there are tons of chunky nuggets to flush down. The episode is here: [99pi]

I don’t think it’s cool to plug some piece, and then spoil it by trumpeting the most fascinating details, so I won’t discuss anything from the episode here, other than to say that it’s worth a listen and it ends with a really interesting public service announcement about those “flushable wipes” – as anyone with a septic system knows, they’re not. But I did not realize that the downstream effect of the flushable wipe is much worse for municipal sewage management systems. The 99% Invisible folks didn’t go into tampons and condoms but, briefly, those are not flushable either. Just ask the septic tank crew who had to go out with pry bars and axes to break apart a frozen floating mountain of condoms in -5F (-20C) at a place I know near here, a few years ago. They were vocally unhappy and I don’t blame them a bit. The “flushable” bit was some ‘inspired’ marketing – i.e.: a lie – without which the darned things probably would have never sold at all, for good reason.

We don’t see how much of this is a matter of culture because, for most of us, things are the way they are when we were kids, so “it’s been like this my whole life.” I grew up in an era of ‘facial tissues’ – Kleenex – but my dad grew up in an area of handkerchiefs. Grandpa was a working class guy, a carpenter, who raised my dad that you blow your nose into your handkerchief, then fold the fabric around the precious goop that was delivered, like you are packaging some kind of gift, then put it back into your pocket. When I first started encountering men’s business fashions, I thought the ‘pocket silks’ looked a bit nice to blow your nose in. Laundry bills, and all that. That was when I started to realize that there are all kinds of indicators of social class built into every stitch in our wardrobes. I pointed the practice out to my dad, once, and he thought for a while and said nothing. But then, he quietly switched to disposable paper – perhaps the idea of storing his snot suddenly didn’t make sense anymore. It has never made sense to me.

I’ve been fascinated by the run on toilet paper. It seems to me to be a “market failure” or whatever excuse economists come up with for when the markets don’t behave at all the way the economists want them to. It’s irrational: the coronavirus outbreak has not caused people to wipe their butts substantially more than they did, before. Even if it did – let’s say double the consumption – you’d see a brief shortage that would be filled fairly quickly as everyone adjusted to the new demand level. But, instead, the demand has gone off into someplace that makes no sense at all. Here’s what I think is going on: we’re seeing a downside of “just in time” supply. The computer models pioneered by WALMART and then Amazon et al are actually very good at predicting when you’ll want your next 6-pack of toilet paper, and they know, for each store, approximately how much toilet paper is consumed by the community it serves. Since toilet paper ought to have a rational demand level, the suppliers can make the right amount of toilet paper appear, as if by magic, to be sold – no need to have stockpiles of toilet paper in mouse-proof storage, like I do. You go straight from the truck to the shelf and then to the customer. Maybe, I am thinking, that “just in time” supply chains are individual disasters, primed and ready to go off when something violates the assumptions that go all the way back to where the raw materials are produced.

Supply chain management is a tricky thing, indeed. You can’t just tell the toilet paper guys “turn the machine to 11” and have the short-term demand fluctuation smoothed out – the paper comes from fiber suppliers, and the fiber comes from shredding and bleaching plants and somewhere there are loggers with chainsaws involved. Turning the machine to 11 means getting the loggers up earlier in the morning, or working them later, or getting more loggers and chainsaws. There’s money to be made in doing that, of course, which represents as a premium in the price for the extra loads of toilet paper to flatten the demand bump. I saw somewhere that the Trump administration apparently is trying to get General Motors to make breath masks, and General Motors asked for nearly $500 million to switch production. That’s because things have changed since WWII, when GM had a lot of machinists and metal workers and you can tell a machinist to stop making pistons and make shells instead, because the machinist a) already knows how to do that, they just haven’t been b) the materials are fairly similar c) human machinists are much more rapidly adaptable than computer-driven robots which don’t actually ‘know’ anything – they just lift this thing to a that position and put two screws in exactly that place then wait until their optical sensor tells them it’s time to do it again. The car makers’ supply chains don’t look like they did in WWII because they’re doing a certain amount of “just in time” supply as well – to switch to doing breath masks they need to replace the thing lifting robot with a silicone injection pump and vacuum system and they need metric fucktonnes of silicone and there aren’t many machinists left in the building and, if there were they’re machinists not silicone experts who know how to build a delivery system for the silicone precursors – they’ve never even seen that stuff. I’m betting that the management team at GM said:
Big Shot #1: Sure, we can do that.
Big Shot #2: (mouthing the words and holds up 2 fingers) (“two hundred million dollars”)
Big Shot #1: (thinks a bit) It’ll cost $500 million dollars Mr President. But we’ll cut you a discount and we can try to bring it in for $480 million plus the standard delays and cost overruns.

Basically, when you come to a businessman with a requirement like that, the price is going to be exactly ${what it costs to build a new factory} because you’re asking GM to start a new business. Adding the capacity to produce toilet paper? Another $500 million. Because there’s no reasonable overlap between those processes. What I’m getting at is that the Trump Administration are a bunch of stone-cold fucking idiots for not going to 3M, which already makes silicone masks, and has the supply chain and know-how and asking them “how much can you ramp production with $200 million if we seed another $200 million down your supply chain so the entire production-line’s capacity is boosted. We’d like it to double, what do you think?” When you’re talking about production lines, you really only have 3 choices:
a) Build a new, parallel production line
b) Run your existing production line twice as long
c) Run your existing production line twice as fast/hard

Each of those has tradeoffs, option a) is costly, option b) is going to increase labor costs and is a non-starter if your production line already runs 24/7, option c) is going to impact quality.

A little googling around shows me what I expected: there are robotic toilet paper production systems available in various sizes:

You can see the small one in action [youtube] but to flatten the bump in the demand curve you’d need gigantic machines – much larger than this. And, you can’t run the machine faster by turning it to 11, because as mechanical systems speed up, some processes become time-critical bottlenecks – for example, there may be a maximum speed at which a certain rolling system can roll paper before it turns to a confetti-maker. You could run it faster but you’d need a whole new machine architecture.

I did a few postings about rope-braiding machines [stderr] back in the day, and they’re a good example of what I’m talking about: some braiding machine architectures simply can’t go that fast because they depend on shuffling bobbins – you need a whole different way of doing it to run 10 times faster. 10 times longer is relatively easy (it has to be more failure resilient) but faster is a different game entirely.

What I’m getting at is that I bet some Washington Dumbass (perhaps Jared Kushner, personally) probably called 3M and told them “turn it up to 11” and they said “pound sand, we’re capitalists, it’s already turned up to 11. In fact it always runs with the knob set on 11.” And the Washington Dumbass said, “screw you then, we’ll ask GM” At which point the executive from 3M said, “good, waste some of their time, I’ve got a breath-mask-making factory to run. Bye.”

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The classical response to supply chain management problems is what’s called “vertical integration.” What that means is that you bring more and more of your supply chain under your control, until you manage the entire thing from production of raw materials to owning trucking companies to deliver the product. That’s what WALMART does, on the stocking and selling side. But the first amazingly integrated vertical company I ever worked with was Koch Industries in 1992 (I was looking at the computer security of their remote-controlled refineries) – Koch started out as an oil drilling and pumping operation. Then, they realized they could control costs better if they owned their own refineries. After that, they realized they had a materials transportation problem and they could control costs and make it more predictable if they owned their own pipelines and a trucking company. Once that was nailed down, then distribution and sales became the next problem, so they started buying gas stations. When it turned out that the main barrier to franchising a gas station is the franchise fee and raising capital, they went into banking, too, so they could own and control the loan that the franchisee took to open the gas station to sell the gas that they refined from the oil they trucked from the wells they own. At each point, when you vertically integrate, you can drive costs down because you’re creating an internal transaction that does not have to be exposed to market forces – i.e.: you’re controlling your own little captive market, which is what every capitalist secretly wants to do no matter how much they talk about free markets.

Update: Here’s some about the GM contract [politico] – pull quotes

GM is to deliver 30,000 ventilators to the Strategic National Stockpile by the end of August, with a total contract price of $489.4 million. The first 6,132 ventilators are to be delivered by June 1.

The administration and GM had previously demurred when asked for specifics on the number of ventilators, the purchase price or the logistics of distribution. The only numbers that had been released publicly were in a tweet by Trump, complaining that GM had initially committed to deliver 40,000 ventilators “very quickly” but then switched to say they could “only” deliver 6,000 “in late April.”

Remember the F-35 trick: same price, smaller number of units. So the difference between 30,000 ventilators and 40,000 is a significant mark-up. I bet a dollar to a donut that the 6,000 in late April is what GM can produce by draining their existing supply-chain, while frantically negotiating for components from wherever they can find them.

Elon Musk fits into all of this, somehow. I read one piece by a former GM executive where he said that Tesla was doing something interesting by trying to re-invent the automotive supply chain that Ford and GM had perfected 50 years ago. His attitude was, “Elon’s smart; it may work.” But I thought it was interesting that his assumption was not as Musk’s is – Musk assumes he can walk up to a highly optimized existing supply-chain management problem and melt it away with the power of his own brilliance. You can do that with software because the software supply-chain is very different from machine products. Does Musk understand this? I don’t know. He appears to have one idea right, which is to hire smart people who know the problem, and let them try to tackle it in new ways. That’s a high-risk proposition because what if they are wrong? If Elon Musk announces that he’s spinning of a “roll on demand” toilet paper company, when we’ll know he’s just a dipshit who’s gotten lucky a couple times in a row.


  1. Ridana says

    They’re trying to get GM to make ventilators, the machines that breathe for you, not respirators, the masks you wear while you’re still breathing on your own. 3M makes the latter, and Twittler (or his moist spawn-in-law) is trying to prevent them from selling any to Canada…where 3M gets its raw materials from for the masks. Supply chain indeed.

  2. lochaber says

    Not sure how relevant this is, but the past week or two, I’ve been seeing this idea about toilet paper popping up in various places. Some people are claiming that nobody is hording it, and that it’s merely a shift in demand from institutional to consumer products.

    While that’s an interesting angle, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate. Where I am, the toilet paper aisles were nearly empty a good couple weeks before the widespread “social distancing” thing started happening. I do think the “just-in-time” supply chain contributes to this problem, as there isn’t any capacity to absorb an unexpected surge, and then once their is the appearance of scarcity (whether real or imagined), it will likely trigger a run on the item in question.

    I’ve been kinda wondering why they are talking about automakers making ventilators. I guess there is some mechanical component, and probably some tubes and hoses and such, but aside from that I’m not sure how they are more similar to cars then say, flat screen tvs or whatever other consumer product…

  3. komarov says

    Excluding 3D-printing maybe, I don’t think there are any modern line-production processes that are flexible enough to switch to radically different products. If retooling was easy, everyone would do it. Instead of closing the car factory (and relocating to cheaper parts), just spend some cash and have the making something else. This would be especially true. Companies wouldn’t have waited for the government bribes, they would have jumped to be the first to market their own brand ventillator/breath mask/toilet paper, made a tidy profit any maybe even reaped some free PR and extra government bribes to ramp it up some more. Does not happen.

    [tangent] As for printing, it’s still not there. The good printers which do metal parts are apparently hideously expensive and in general the quality, particularly of surfaces, still seems to be lacking. Maybe some top-of-the-line models with according price tags could produce medical machinery, but even then the resulting gear might not be up to specifications. It’s still very much at the “single component” stage, apparently, i.e. 3D prinitng makes one or two pieces of larger whole, and there have been some stories of that being used to improvise supplies for the pandemic. [/tangent]

    Speaking of just-in-time logistics and car makers: German car makers are getting headachses just planning to restart their factories. Thanks to JIT, this requires a lot of subsidiaries, subcontractors and suppliers have to be ready and organised to start up at the same time. Many supply chains also cross borders, which at the moment can be problematic even without the precise timing required by this logistics model. I wonder if that was ever factored into the potential risks and costs when it was decided to abandon onsite stockpiles in favour of cheaper just-in-time supply chains. Whatever the answer, I have no doubt many of the managers responsible are long since retired (possibly into other companies) and are very relieved about that.

  4. springa73 says

    Anecdotally, one thing that I’ve noticed is that the shortage of toilet paper (and other paper and cleaning products) has been persistent, at least where I shop and live. It doesn’t seem to have been a single panicked rush when Coronavirus first blew up, but rather a medium-term rise in demand that the supply chain hasn’t been able to adjust to, at least not yet.

  5. says

    This is one of the profoundly essential problems with capitalism.

    Flexibility costs money. The more brittle your system, the more cost efficient you are in a lot of ways. Therefore everyone, under the lash of competition (or greed in the absence of competition), seeks to build systems which are just flexible enough to survive change on a roughly average quarter/year scale, not on a 10 year or 50 year scale. Unusual events will, by definition, wreak havoc. If you were capable of surviving a pandemic, you’ve already been put out of business.

    Taleb is having a field day yammering about fat tails on twitter. He seems to think he has a solution which makes capitalism work in these cases? I haven’t read it because I got shit to do.

  6. says

    On Musk: His one truly useful contribution is that he really really wants to do the things his companies do.

    GM doesn’t want to make cars. They want to make money, cars is just the way they know how to do that. If they could build zero cars and make $0.01 more money, they’d do that. Musk wouldn’t, Musk wants to build cars. He is, manifestly, willing to lose money doing so. Ideally someone else’s money, sure.

    Ditto space, Boeing doesn’t give a shit about going in to space. They just want NASA’s money. What they’d really like is to take all of NASA’s money and supply white papers and spreadsheets in return about how one might go to space if only there was a great deal more money. Musk wants to go to space.

    He’s a dangerous idiot, otherwise, but by god the man wants to go to space in an electric car soooo bad and it does change the equation a bit.

  7. Dunc says

    Further to Andrew’s point @ #7: in many cases, efficiency and resilience are pretty much antonyms. When your entire supply chain is run on a highly-tuned just-in-time basis, there is no slack anywhere to cope with anything unexpected. Which is fine as long as things are running normally…

    Regarding toilet paper… I installed an under-seat bidet in my toilet a couple of years back after reading an article about the ecological impacts of toilet paper production (and learning that under-seat bidets existed from the comments) and I wouldn’t go back if you paid me.

  8. says

    On toilet paper: I usually wait for the 48 roll packs to come on special before buying. I’m still working my way through one of those. When the panic first hit, our supermarket put a stack of them out the front at normal prices. The slightly smaller packs were in their aisle at a special price, so I bought one just in case. It’ll be at least another month before I need to join the panic buyers. I feel sorry for all those people who need to do “just in time” purchasing for non perishables, either for lack of space or lack of funds.

    On Musk, his major advantage is that he attracts the finest young engineering minds available in the jobs market. Whether he pays them well is another matter. People apparently like to work where their minds are stretched to their full abilities. That talent pool allows him to deploy resources much faster than the opposition in developing novel tools. His ventilating machines seem to be made mostly from parts off his vehicle production line. Air pumps, ducting, electronic touch screen controls, valves etc are already there.

    Before my engineering education, I looked at the possibility of working for a big company. I soon realised that fine tuning production lines wasn’t going to make me happy so I decided self employment was where I belonged. I’m no Musk but at least my engineering skills have somewhere to play where I get to see the benefits. Working for GM would have pushed my mind off a cliff.

  9. larpar says

    489.4 million for 30,000 ventilators works out to $16,313 per ventilator.
    Can I get one in a hatchback?

  10. Owlmirror says

    I didn’t listen to the podcast yet, but I did look at the web page. They do seem to talk about something else I’d seen in a twitter thread: There’s plenty of toilet paper available — produced by the away-from-home supply chain. Which is unfortunately not set up to sell to retail stores or homes. There’s contracts and other legal and business-related logistical issues.

    (The above is collated from various twitter threads, which I didn’t bookmark at the time. Maybe I’m off on some of the details?)

    Hm. Pray to Google!

    Wiped Out of Toilet Paper? Here’s Why


    No. Commercial toilet paper uses a different kind of pulp and is produced on different machines. Many institutional rolls are intentionally larger, so cleaning staff don’t have to refill them as often and people don’t steal them, Luke said. Plusher toilet paper for home use also has different packaging requirements, Garfield said.

    Prior to the coronavirus crisis, about half of U.S. toilet paper sales were commercial, while the other half were for homes, Garfield said. That’s changing; AlixPartners estimates U.S. household demand is up 40% as offices and schools close.

    But Georgia-Pacific said commercial demand hasn’t yet fallen. It has seen a surge of orders from hospitals and other essential businesses that are still operating.

  11. julezyme says

    Quick aside on the “how much to does one need to buy” question from the perspective of vulva-having person.

    I used to spend max 6 hours a day awake at my house during the week, maybe 8-10 on weekends. That’s like … maybe one poo and 4-7 pee events per day. Not being at work or out other places means I’m at least doubling, maybe tripling, my daily home peeing for which I use t.p. every time. Men simply do not understand this arthimetic because they don’t typically wipe after a wee and tend pee less than women on average.

    I’m *shocked* at how my loo roll I’m getting through in a week, and have reverted to hankies for nose blowing.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    It’s irrational: the coronavirus outbreak has not caused people to wipe their butts substantially more than they did, before.

    The extent is rational, but there is a ‘kernel of truth’. People are wiping their butts more in their own homes, whereas before they sometimes wiped their buts at their place of employment.

  13. Allison says

    For much of my career, I’ve been constantly hearing corporate gurus and their parrots insisting “change is good” “embrace change,” as if change were a good in and of itself.

    We’re seeing that despite that, they’ve set up systems that depend upon no changes at all, or only the changes that they’ve planned on.

    Of course, as a techie, I knew that that “change is good” mantra was full of you-know-what. (The stupid, it burns.)

  14. publicola says

    @14: I don’t know about you, (nor do I want to), but my wife uses about a yard of paper every time she takes a leak. That just can’t be normal.

  15. says

    I don’t think it’s cool to plug some piece, and then spoil it by trumpeting the most fascinating details, so I won’t discuss anything from the episode here

    When I write about some non-fiction book or podcast or whatever, I assume that the overwhelming majority of my readers won’t bother to actually read/listen/watch the material I recommended. Thus I explain the main points/ideas in my blog post.

  16. says

    Andreas Avester@#18:
    When I write about some non-fiction book or podcast or whatever, I assume that the overwhelming majority of my readers won’t bother to actually read/listen/watch the material I recommended. Thus I explain the main points/ideas in my blog post.

    I try to frame them, but I don’t want to be writing commented precis of other people’s work. That’s hardly a recipe for creativity or incisive writing. I feel like I am trying to point out interesting things that people should read and, if they don’t, that’s their problem. In the piece I recently quoted from Richard Rhodes, I quoted just the part that was relevant to my discussion of nuclear espionage and (clearly, I hope) I did not expect the reader to absorb that entire book because it’s huge. On the other hand, it’s a really good and interesting and worthwhile book and it wouldn’t harm anyone to read it all.

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