Every year, shipping container manufacturers churn out between 2 and 2.5 million TEUs (shorthand for standard 20-foot containers). One reason why they make so many is that transport ships can now carry an incredible number of containers at one time. Indeed, when people think of shipping containers, they often picture them stacked upon massive cargo ships. Lets takes a look at the facts behind that picture.
Containers and Ships: A Perfect Match
Standardized cargo containers are so amenable to transport by sea because of their uniform nature. Though there is some variation between containers for different purposes, containers by and large abide by the ISO standardization system.
Essentially, the ISO system ensures that containers are stackable because they all come in certain lengths and widths. The two most common lengths are 20 and 40 feet, and the most common width is 8 feet. Because of the uniform lengths and widths, dock and ship workers can start loading as soon as an empty ship shows up: They don’t need to plan a way to get a bunch of odd-shaped containers to fit.
Loading a Ship
Though the ISO system makes loading a ship easier, it still takes a lot of work. Operators use massive cranes up to 430 feet in height to move cargo containers onto a ship. Ship loaders also need to keep several considerations in mind, according to Wired.com:
- Containers with certain chemicals can’t go near containers with other chemicals that might cause a reaction.
- Any refrigerated containers need power sources nearby.
- So that stacks don’t collapse, the heaviest containers go on the bottom.
Economies of Scale
Numbers on every container allow companies to track their containers from destination to destination. That’s a vital feature when it comes to keeping containers organized, considering some ships can now carry 18,000 containers apiece.
Because container ships can transport so much cargo, they’re highly cost effective: According to the World Shipping Council, it costs just $10 to transport a bicycle from Thailand to the UK; $10 to move a DVD player from Asia to Europe; and just a penny to transport a can of beer the same distance.
So whenever you conjure the mental picture of a ship stacked high with shipping containers, you’re picturing one of the world’s most efficient transportation systems. Impressive.