Intermodal Container History
The metal shipping container was invented in the US in the 1950s, with American Malcolm McLean generally credited with its development into a uniform product in 1956, and further evolution into the intermodal container shortly thereafter. McLean used intermodal containers very successfully to ship goods from the US to troops in South Vietnam during the 1960s. Prior to the invention of the intermodal container, goods were shipped across oceans for centuries as loose cargo, typically in wooden crates. The loading and unloading of such cargo was extremely expensive and time consuming, and theft was a major problem.
An intermodal container is made of steel, is reusable, and is used to ship products across various modes of transportation such as ship, rail and truck without the need for unloading and reloading its contents. Each container has a unique ISO 6346 reporting mark, allowing for easy tracking. As intermodal container use took off between 1965 and 1970, dockyard loading rates expanded at an order-of-magnitude pace. At the same time, fewer dockworkers were needed, resulting in fewer strikes and less labor bargaining power. On top of all these efficiency related cost savings, manufacturers benefitted from a drastic reduction in theft of goods and corresponding insurance savings. In the process, international trade underwent a revolution.
The two most commonly used container sizes today are of 20-foot and 40-foot lengths. The 20-foot container, referred to as a Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU), has become the industry standard when it comes to measuring vessel capacity. However, the 40-foot length container equivalent to 2 TEUs) is the most popular used container type today, and is referred to as a Forty-foot Equivalent Unit (FEU). Both these two main types of containers are usually of around 8-foot width and 8-foot height. While not as common, various other sizes of containers are in use, with the length generally being the main significant variation.
According to UK-based Drewry Maritime Research’s latest survey, the global fleet of containers grew by 5.3 percent in 2012 to 32.9 million TEU. Dry containers account for around 90 percent of all containers in use, with refrigerated containers (reefers) and tankers accounting for the rest. According the Alphaliner, the global operational fleet of containerships as of February 25 2015 was around 6,000 ships with aggregate capacity of 19 million TEU. However, this figure was only for liner trade, which is defined as the transportation of goods via high-capacity, ocean-based ships that operate regular routes on fixed schedules.
Containership Size Records
Technological progress, increasing fuel efficiency and larger ports are among the main reasons behind the regular increase in the average size of containerships over the past five decades. The biggest beneficiary of this has been the South Korean shipbuilding industry, with locally based Daewoo constructing most of the largest containerships in recent years. The below chart shows the largest containerships in the world in selected years as measured by TEU capacity.
Impact on Global Trade
The evolution of the containership (and container standardization) combined with the enactment of numerous regional and global trade agreements in the last half century have revolutionized global trade. There has been some debate about which of the two has been more important. An important 2013 article in The Economist (based on a collaborative research paper from professors at two universities) suggests that containerization has had a more significant positive impact on global trade growth even when compared to the impact from all the trade agreements signed worldwide during the past 50 years. The biggest beneficiary of containerization has been China, the world’s manufacturing powerhouse. The country’s industrialization has benefitted in no small measure from the simple metal container.
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