The shipping container is an invention that revolutionized the entire world trade. It allowed goods and materials to be transported in a speedier way, and made way for faster growth of the global economy, and also initiated increasing levels of prosperity and living standards for people all over the world. The intermodal container is nothing but a bulky steel box that allows the transportation of cargo via road, rail, and sea. The invention of freight containers has had an insightful, economic and social impact on the entire shipping industry at first and later went on to become an important invention in the development of the world economy. Before we move further, let’s shed some light on intermodal transportation-an important jargon used in the shipping industry.
Evolution of Intermodal Transportation
The notion of intermodal shipping goes back to the 1780s. During those times, the cargo that had to be transported the most was coal, as it had to be transferred in bulk. These coal containers were called “loose boxes or tubs” and were transported through horse-drawn carriages and shipping crafts. Once the system of trains came into existence, iron or wooden containers were attached to the train cars for a new mode of travel.
However, this technique was not commonly preferred in the 1800s. Transporting Cargo via intermodal means was not considered a very practical approach. Only during World War II was the intermodal means of transportation given any thought when US Military troops used intermodal pallets in order to transport their equipment.
Only in the 1950s was a proper standard shipping container designed for intermodal transportation purposes. Today, this form of transport plays a crucial role in sustaining the world economy and makes trading possible between countries that are far off, and is also cost-effective.
Now onto metal shipping containers.
Evolution of Intermodal Container
Until a few decades ago, there was no existence of cargo containers and hence, intermodal shipping solutions whatsoever. Goods were taken from one place to another in sacks, barrels, and crates and this goes on as long back as 3000 BC. This was known as break-bulk cargo. For inland transportation, goods were carried by horses and for longer distances, ships and boats were used.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that the idea of piling containers on atop the other came up. Coal was transported in tubs and in the 19th century, intermodal transportation came into existence and thus gave birth to intermodal shipping containers.
The Inspiration Behind Maritime Shipping Container
The intermodal shipping container came into existence by Malcolm McLean, in 1956. He was born in 1914 in North Carolina. He was a transport business owner and within a few years, his business was the 5th largest transportation business in all of America.
Malcolm used to sit and contemplate about how loading and unloading of cargo again and again while changing the mode of transport was a wasteful and time-consuming process. He was looking for a more efficient and effective process of cargo transportation in less time. This was when inspiration struck him, and he had the brilliant idea to create a standard-sized unit that could be loaded on marine transport mediums, as well as land transport.
This ensured that cargo could be immaculately transported between road, rail, and sea, thus revolutionizing the shipping of cargo and global trade. In the initial few years, different firms had used these vessels that were relevant to their industry depending on the ships they owned, the kind of cargo they wanted to transport, and the legal limits on length or weight of the cargo by any means of transportation.
Recognition of Intermodal Container
By the 1960s, intermodal shipping containers had become the ideal way for shipping freight all around the world. This called for the standardization of cargo containers of sizes and categories of weight across international boundaries. The International Organization for Standardization set standard sizes for cargo boxes, which were 20 and 40 feet in length giving rise to 20ft and 40ft shipping containers. These are the two most widely used container dimensions even today.
As the intermodal form of conveyance was nurtured, the idea of setting up manufacturing units near the facilities designed to allow easy access to trucks carrying containers instead of being lined up in the busiest seaports came into existence. There came a time when the whole world became submissive to the power and versatility, the steel containers possessed. Ships began to be designed keeping the specification of these boxes in mind. The costs for shipping plummeted and it also became inexpensive to produce goods in another corner of the world as transportation had become so cheap.
Ever since then, Containerization has revolutionized ports, rail networks, ships, and countries all over the world. It has been termed as the sole biggest facilitator of globalization. Today’s modern shipping units have the ability to carry over 20,000 TEU containers in the 20 feet variant. Over 90% of items purchased all over the world have been transported inside intermodal containers at some point in time.
Technological Advancement of Metal Containers
The evolution of container shipping has transformed the world in many different ways. It reduced the cost of shipping, loading, and unloading of cargo, and the risk of theft. As a result of this, the cost of cargo insurance was also decreased. A large number of goods could be lodged on each vessel every single time which accounted for economies of scale. Trade came within the reach of the people as the transfer of cargo from one location to another became easier.
Maritime shipping containers are considered to be one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. The intermodal transportation standards for containers are set by the ISO. There are a wide variety of shipping units in the market currently, ranging from dry van to pallet-wide, open-top, flat rack, platform, reefer, tanker, and many more. They are also available in dimensions like 20ft, 40ft, and in high cube variants.
Technological advancements in the industry have also made the transportation of cargo much more convenient. The refrigerated technology of reefer containers allows shippers to keep their cargo at the ideal temperature which lets them ship perishable items with utmost ease. They can also monitor the temperature within containers while they are in transit. Many containers like smart containers also provide GPS tracking, by giving the location of freight and the ability to determine when the goods are expected to arrive at their destination.
Shipping Containers Today
Today, shipping boxes are manufactured from Cor-Ten steel, a type of steel that is resistant to elements and their effects. The lifespan of a cargo box is around 10-15 years. In terms of value, global maritime container trade is estimated to account for over 60% of all seaborne trade, which was prized around 14 trillion US dollars. Between 1980 and 2020, the weight tonnage of container ships has grown from about 11 million metric tons to around 275 million metric tons.
The basic invention of a simple cargo unit revolutionized the world we live in today. It has facilitated global manufacturing and international trade in a way that was never possible before. The shipping containers have also increased employment opportunities among various nations of the world and fueled the international economy.