How containers transformed the global freight landscape

How containers transformed the global freight landscape

By Kelly English, Senior Accounts Manager, Quality Freight Services.

Shipping is truly the lynchpin of global economy and international trade.  More than 90% of world merchandise trade is carried by sea; and over 60% of that volume is containerised.

In today’s era of globalisation, international trade has evolved to the level where almost no nation can be self-sufficient and global trade has adopted an interdependency between countries.

Shipping has always provided the most cost-effective means of transportation over long distances and containerisation has played a crucial role in world maritime transport.

Today’s global marketplace has been largely made possible by containerisation.  The first shipping container was invented and patented in 1956 by an American named Malcolm McLean who started out as a trucker.

There were a number of pressures that led to the research for new means of handling the international movement of general cargo.  Chief among these was the dramatic growth in world trade in the years following the Second World War.  The war had seen great advances in methods of mass production manufacturing and innovation especially in the field of electronic engineering.  This led to sophisticated consumer goods becoming much cheaper in real terms because of improved industrial processes and newly independent or developing countries growing high aspirations for the living standards of their people and for the development of their industries.

Before containerisation, an infinite combination of sizes and shapes of boxes, crates and product were delivered by truck and trailer to a port.  These were then loaded either directly or in large cargo nets into the hold, or onto the deck of a ship to be stowed and secured.  Consequently it cost about $5.86 a ton to load a ship.

In 1955 McLean sold his trucking company and then purchased Pan Atlantic Tanker Company, which he re-named Sea-Land Shipping.  With this shipping company he could try out better ways to load and unload trucks and ships.  McLean’s innovation was to develop the concept of the use of a standard size unit that could be carried on a road trailer or in a ship.

The idea of containers was rapidly accepted, not only for the productivity benefits but the shippers and consignees could see the advantages of greater protection for their cargo and the door-to-door concept that arose from the containers ability to be carried by different transport means, giving birth to the words ‘intermodalism’ or later ‘multi-modalism’.

This new method of operation replaced the cargo handling systems that had been in place for some 3000 years previously.

The costs involved in unloading trucks and trains at the ports, and then loading and stowing the cargo on board the ships, was eliminated.  After McLean’s revolution it only cost about $0.16 a ton to load a ship; a reduction of 97%.  Without this revolution today’s global marketplace would not be a reality.

Within twenty years some form of containerisation was introduced into every major line route and new routes evolve constantly to match changing demands.

The scale can be appreciated by considering the first container ship developed by Malcolm McLean called the SS Ideal X.  This converted WW2 oil tanker carried just 58 containers on its maiden containership voyage.  Compare that to today’s OOCL Hong Kong which is capable of carrying 21,413 standard 20ft containers.

To this day, vessels continue to increase in size as world trade demands grow.  We all benefit from the time, handling and cost efficiencies that the short 60 year history of containers has brought us.  

Kelly English is Senior Accounts Manager at Quality Freight Services. English’s 18 year career has included an operational and, later, sales role at Bradship. At Quality Freight Services she oversees the company’s involvement with the tile industry, a sector in which she has extensive experience.
T:  01274 580866  E:  kelly@qualityfreight.co.uk
W: www.qualityfreightservices.co.uk