Container shipping moves 95% of all manufactured and finished goods around the world. Shipping is an industry that underpins the global economy. But it wasn't always as humungous or as efficient, as it is today.
The idea of transporting goods through seas was materialized in the 3rd century BC When merchants realized that it was cheaper and logistically more convenient & faster than by land. But early on, goods were loaded onto ships in sacks, wooden crates, and barrels with numerous dock workers accommodating them on ship decks or in tight spaces beneath the deck. Ships often spent more time on docks than on voyage due to cluttered loading and unloading. Not much changed in over 2000 years.
In 1937, A 24-year-Old Truck Driver, Malcolm Mclean, got a job to take Cotton bales from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Hoboken, New Jersey, for bundles to be shipped overseas. When he arrived there, he got bored out of his mind sitting in his truck waiting furiously & impatiently at the docks, while the worker unloaded crates and bundles off other vehicles into slings that lifted the goods into the ship. Onboard, amidst all the yelling and the arm-waving, the dock-workers then unloaded each sling and saw its contents placed in a designated position over the deck. Malcolm wasn’t just bored, but he was fuming with profuse anger as his income depended on getting the truck back to North Carolina for further loading. Out of sheer frustration, Inspiration struck, and an idea took birth in his mind. He thought it would be so convenient and less time-consuming if his trailer could be lifted and placed directly on board the vessel, without Cotton-bales being touched. What Malcolm envisioned would have saved him only a day, but it would have saved everyone else a couple of weeks in loading and unloading the ship. On average, it was 8 days to haul and distribute break-bulk shipments in the hold, plus another 8 days at the arrival port to retrieve and distribute. All that time would have been saved.
Malcolm got the idea when he was 24, but he turned 40 before he did anything about it while building his one truck business into a big-trucking company. He then borrowed money from CITIBANK and went for designing the Steel Boxes, and the deck replica of the ships to carry them stacked one on top of another. Lots of people thought he was mad. Inventors or Innovators have always attracted masses of naysayers. His first container ship named ‘IDEAL X’ dispatched from Shed 154, Marsh Street, Port Newark, with 58 intact boxes.
Hence, the beginning of ‘The Container. A flurry of innovation followed, and container sizes were standardized to fit every purpose vehicle.
While Ships docked at ports, Freight trains and trucks can take them away without re-packaging enhancing to move cargoes from remote, landlocked parts of the world at a minimal cost.
In the 1960s, more shipping lines started container services, and modern container ships started hitting the Oceans, giving rise to the Marine Traffic.
Cargo could now be moved from Vessels to Rails & Roads in massive volumes very efficiently & effectively, cutting the freight & labor cost. This also led to the emergence of Global shipping giants like Danish MAERSK, French CMA CGM, and Chinese COSCO Shipping Company.
By the 1980s, around 90% of manufactured & finished goods were containerized from Foods, Clothes to Electronics, and heavy machinery. Globalization exploded when ships moved American & European goods to the East and vice versa, making stops at various pre-defined Ports (Transport & Trans-shipment hubs) along the way.
The concept that occurred to Malcolm is a reason we are now a thriving global marketplace. The containers have done more than save time, but it instead has more significant ripple effects on so many other things and our lifestyle today.
A single container can carry 10,000 iPads at the cost of 5 cents per piece from Shanghai to Rotterdam. An Average TV coming from South Korea to the US costs around $3 to ship in volume. But the most remarkable innovation in the containerized shipping among the plethora of others is the Refrigerated containers, also known as Reefer containers. The Satellite tracked Reefer can move Fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowers with high perishability to a distant land in huge volume replacing the Air cargo & cutting the cost. Fresh fruits like Bananas can last in Reefers for up to 60 days and moved from the Dominican Republic to the UK, undermining the moisture; food items resist being on the ocean humidity during the voyage.
Check out the modern Super-markets; you’ll get Orange juice from China, Nuts from India, Lager Beers from Germany, Scores of exotic European Cheese. Trillions of worth Parts & finished goods move cheaply around the world every second. Small portion moves by air, but most in bulk volume by sea. The credit goes to the Containerization and the subsidiary inventions after that. Containerization has even played in part in the bulk cargoes where instead of Grains like Wheat, Lentil, Peas, Corn, etc. been filled in the bulk vessel of around 30,000-50,000 Mts. It can now be poured in volume in containers making it a small quantity of 20-25 Mts in loose without being bagged and directly shipped from Vancouver to Istanbul.
In hindsight, every Innovation has to deal with repercussions, but if the convenience exists, the side-effects will persist. Maintaining the critical balance is essential with continuous precautions. Hence, it has never been smooth sailing; the industry has been plagued by too many ships in the ocean, sparking a series of price wars in the tug of unhealthy competition and clutter that plunged many operators deep into the debt and sank others. This caused a wave of consolidation among company and various giant shipping companies booked bankruptcy and went shut or taken over.
On the other hand, Shipping has also seen criticism from the Governments and Environmentalists that it is responsible for around 30% of the world’s Nitrogen Oxide pollution. The operators are adopting cleaner fuels like Natural Gas. Today, the industry continues to boom. Container ships, on average, can now move 20,000 boxes
So, what does the future holds in The BOX, probably the crewless vessels, running on batteries that can move 1,00,000 containers OR global cargo distribution through Block-Chain technology that’ll eliminate paperwork and further cut cost? The reduction in Human efforts may see another dawn in the day of THE BOX.