Cargo Containers – Making The World Go Around

cargo-containers-making-the-world-go-aroundChances are you’ve seen countless cargo containers–the corrugated boxes attached to trucks, riding on trains, or stacked upon massive ships. But there’s more to cargo containers than meets the eye: Because of their standardized nature, they’re incredibly vital to the world’s economy, and have been almost since their genesis.

McLean’s Realization

Cargo containers (also known as shipping containers) are all about moving things cheaply and efficiently.

According to The Economist, uniform shipping containers first came to prominence in the mid-1950s, when businessman Malcolm McLean realized he could bring about massive savings by using uniform containers easily transferable between shipping modes. The cost comparison was $0.16 to load a ton using uniform containers compared to $5.83 to load a ton of “loose cargo on a standard ship.” That means uniform cargo containers were over 36 times cheaper to load.

From there, things moved quickly. In 1961, the United States adopted standardized container sizes, and by 1965, the ISO classification and standardization system was in effect across the world. By 1983, nearly 90 percent of countries had a container port.

The Impact of Cargo Containers

A 2013 study by the researchers Daniel M. Bernhofen, Zouheir El-Sahli, and Richard Kneller attempted to quantify just how much shipping containers have impacted the world’s economy. They found much evidence that containers boosted productivity, but here are a few highlights:

  • In the United Kingdom and Europe, between 1965 and 1971, productivity of dock labor rose from 1.7 to 30 tons per hour.
  • Over the same span, insurance costs dropped from £0.24 to £0.04 per ton.
  • Companies were able to more than double the size of the average ship.

That increase in productivity has ramped up to the present. For instance, today, Maersk’s Triple-E class of ship can move 18,270 TEUs (a TEU is a 20-foot-equivalent unit–a standard 20-foot container). That’s a staggering amount of cargo for just one ship.

Containers Today and Tomorrow

Today, thanks to the ISO classification system, containers come in two main sizes: 20 feet and 40 feet, with a height of 8 feet, 6 inches and a width of 8 feet. Variations do exist, such as 53-foot containers meant for trucks, but the fact that containers are predictable in size makes them stackable on cargo ships and transferable between transportation methods.

What does the future hold for shipping containers? New innovations could be coming–for instance, according to Popular Mechanics, Boeing recently patented an airplane design “that would lower onto shipping containers and then lock them into place.” McLean would probably have been surprised–but pleased–to hear of an airplane opening its belly and engulfing a cargo container for transport.

One thing is for certain: Cargo containers will continue to be vital to the world’s economy.