The First Globaliser: The Steel Box that Connected the World

The shipping of containers celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. The concept to use containers to transport goods was developed by trucking entrepreneur Malcom McLean of North Carolina in the US in 1955. He realised that the ability to lift a container directly from the ship to the truck, and vice versa, without having to offload the contents within, was a much simpler solution to cargo transport. This resulted in the next 50 years of international cargo transportation and trade.

Globally and in South Africa

The shipping industry has made headlines in the last year for its decline in growth due to the worst-ever market conditions it has faced since the inception of global shipping trade. Since 96% of South Africa’s exports are conveyed by sea, the challenges the industry faces globally impact directly on our country’s economy. South Africa trades via sea with neighbouring southern African partners, Asia, the Americas and the east and west coasts of Africa, relying on this trade to boost our economy and export levels.

Sub-Sahara Africa’s largest and busiest shipping terminal is the Port of Durban, referred to as Durban Harbour, handling up to 31.4 million tonnes of cargo each year and generating more than 60% of revenue in South Africa. Durban Harbour welcomes approximately 4 500 vessels and 83 000 shipping containers yearly, as reported by BusinessTech in 2015, and conducts trade worth over US$45-billion. A total of 57% of container traffic in South Africa goes through Durban Harbour.

Container traffic in South Africa is handled through installed capacity of about 4.8 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in the system and dedicated terminals in the Ports of Durban, Ngqura and Cape Town. The overall installed capacity at South Africa’s container terminal stands at 60%. Durban Harbour is the only port which completely occupies its design capacity for containers – 3 020 000 TEUs out of
3 020 000 – while Ngqura has 491 442 out of 2 800 000 (18%) and Cape Town 900 000 out of 1 500 000 (60%).

A history of containers

The international standard for container size was issued in 1961. Commonly referred to as TEUs, container dimensions set by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) are 20 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet 6 inches high – that’s 6.09 metres long, 2.4 metres wide and 2.6 metres high respectively, in metric terms. The first converted container ship to carry cargo across the sea, Fairland, left from Port Elizabeth in the US to Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1966 with 236 containers on board. This marked the beginning of global shipping trade, an industry which grew faster and more exponentially than expected. In 1969,18 container vessels were built, 10 of them with the capacity of 1 000 TEUs. By 1972, container vessels could fit up to 3 000 TEUs on board. Today, the biggest container vessel ever built, the Emma Maersk, can fit 15 200 TEUs on board.

The 1970s and 80s saw connections open between Japan and the US west coast, and Europe and the US east coast. Further than that, the Europe-Asia route began to be serviced by a group of carriers sharing ship space and by the end of the decade, shipping between Europe, Southeast and Eastern Asia, South Africa, Australia/New Zealand, North America and South America were all largely containerised. By 1983 there were 12 million TEUs all over the world, including the Middle East, Indian subcontinent and East and West Africa where containers began to arrive.

It was recorded in 2012 that there were 32 million containers scattered across the world – out at sea, on-board trucks, travelling along a train line or waiting in loading bays. Shanghai, China is the world’s biggest and busiest container port, taking over from Singapore a couple years back. According to Forbes, mainland China ports account for 70% of the top 10 ports in the world, with the Port of Shanghai handling the majority of China’s containers.

Technology and shipping

Technological advancement has, over the years, been a hot topic and closely followed within every industry of every economy in the world. Technology is innovating and disrupting what we have always known and the benefits that come with it can certainly be used to advantage within the shipping and container industry – especially when considering the industry’s undeniable slump early in 2016 due to China’s trade slowdown. There is small irony to be found in the world’s oldest globaliser – the shipping trade – relying on the modern world globaliser – technology – for its transformation.

Technology has taken over the world due to its efficiency in driving production, lowering costs and considering the environment, amongst many other benefits. The new technology that has become available for shipping containers has advanced so significantly over the years that the options may seem daunting, particularly for such an old industry.

Traditionally, shippers have needed both satellite and mobile technology, with two separate pieces of equipment to enable that dual-usage. Mobile technology offers real-time data – satellite too – but at a cheaper rate and covering less of the world. Satellite tracking, although more expensive, covers up to 98% of the globe and is the preferred method of choice should cargo have to travel through more remote parts of the world with little to no cellular coverage. Technology has evolved to enable functioning of both satellite and mobile components in the same device, keeping the carbon footprint and cost of equipment manufacture as low as possible. Machine-to-machine (M2M) equipment is one of these innovative solutions, which allows separate pieces of equipment to communicate wirelessly and frequently, without human intervention.

In March this year, French shipping giant CMA CGM unveiled 18 000 climate-controlled containers aboard one of their vessels, all boasting brand new technology. Using the Internet of Things, each container is ‘smart’ and is able to connect and share information such as temperature, location, humidity levels, attempted break-ins, breakages, vibrations and custom clearance status with other containers, the crews’ mobile phones and the company’s headquarters.

Another notable advancement in monitoring the inside of the containers during transport is the use of the piezoelectric effect, by which certain materials generate an electric charge in response to applied mechanical stress: vibration sensors can pick up shifting cargo or help spot stowaways, and are powered
by the very vibrations they were designed to detect. Low-powered sensors then relay this information to port authorities before the arrival of the container, leaving no room for nasty surprises.

Containers are usually scanned at ports to check for illegal and harmful substances and/or, cargo; however, shipping containers are generally made from corrugated steel for extra strength and penetrating a metal such as steel requires high-powered X-rays, even gamma rays, and proves too expensive and often dangerous. In 2014 at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, Dr Stephan Lechner of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Italy proposed making containers out of carbon-fibre composites.

Containers would be lighter and could, if designed properly, fold in to a flat sheet when empty, saving space; an additional and perhaps the most important perk of a carbon-fibre container is that it can be scanned easily with soft X-rays – which are easier to generate and less dangerous to use – without having to open it.

Containers are particularly well travelled

In 2008, the BBC started tracking a container, dubbed the BBC Box, in order to better understand the distance a container travels, the routes it takes and the challenges it may encounter. The study aimed to shed light on international trade and globalisation (and was open for the public to follow online) – according to Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything, containers “have fuelled if not created globalisation”.

Fitted with a tracking device and painted with the iconic colours and logo of the BBC, the Box was followed for a period of one year, as it was transported by the Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) shipping line
using intermodal freight transport with various cargoes.

Starting off empty, the Box travelled to its first destination and was shortly filled with its first
load – 15 120 bottles of whisky from Glasgow to be transported to Shanghai, China. Once the contents were offloaded in China, the Box was refilled with tape measures/cosmetics/gardening products and transported to the Port of Los Angeles, USA via Japan and the Pacific Ocean.

It was then transported by rail from the Port of Los Angeles to New Jersey and by road to Pennsylvania. From there the Box went to New York City where it was filled with ink/spearmint flavouring/additives/
polyester fibre and redirected, by sea, to Santos, Brazil. Monosodium glutamate and auto parts were loaded into the container, which travelled via the Cape of Good Hope and Singapore. It was reloaded at the Port of Hong Kong and sent to the Port of Yokohama, Japan where it stayed for a few months from April to July 2009, and was loaded with various consolidated cargo destined for Laem Chabang, Thailand.
The container received its final load of 95 940 tins of cat food at Lat Krabeng, Bangkok, Thailand, on
25 September 2009 and was destined for arrival at Southampton, United Kingdom – its departure point one year earlier.

The BBC Box travelled for a total of 421 days, covering a distance of approximately 83 129 km. Of those, 75 761 km were done by ship, 5 196 km by train, 2 171 km by road – a cool 2.08 laps around the world. The BBC and their project partners, NYK, decided to donate the container to charity at the end of the project and sent it to South Africa, in the Cape Flats, and turned it into a permanent soup kitchen for those who were most affected by the global recession in 2008.

Containers repurposed

Even old, battered, well-used shipping containers have a second chance at life. Repurposing old containers has become somewhat of a trend over the years. They’re strong, mobile and stackable, making their uses various and unlimited. If you type into Google “what can you do with shipping containers?” over four million search results come up, all demonstrating the various uses of old shipping containers.

Brad Berman, of Berman-Kalil Housing Concepts – a Cape Town-based company specialising in the utilisation of old shipping containers to build inexpensive, high-quality sustainable housing – is an expert in the field. In a place like South Africa where basic housing and unemployment are major problems, the use of second-hand containers, which can no longer be used for their intended purpose, could transform a community and improve the standard of living. Container homes can replace informal housing, shacks and settlements to provide safer and better quality housing – as well as clinics, schools, stores and almost any other structure.

In 2014 Maersk caught on to the trend and subsequently branched off with a sideline establishment, Maersk Line Container Sales, to provide customers like Berman with second-hand containers. According to Rune Sorensen, Managing Director of Maersk’s new company, “the market doesn’t know itself”. This means that people are still exploring the industry and the uses of shipping containers.

How containers work in 10 steps

1. A South African shoe store places an order with a Chinese manufacturer in China for 500 pairs of the latest, trendy shoe. The shoe store collaborates with a freight forwarder to arrange transport of the shoes from China to South Africa.

2. A trucking company arrives at the Chinese manufacturer and loads the 500 shoes ordered by the shoe store, as well as any other cargo from various other companies arranged for the same shipment. The container is bolted shut and fitted with a high-security seal. The next time the container is opened is at the distribution warehouse in the destination country, unless customs officials decide to inspect the load beforehand.

3. The truck carries the container to the closest and most accessible, efficient and appropriate port for it to be shipped. The freight forwarder usually has a contract with a shipping company and all documentation about the shipment to government authorities in the exporting and importing countries. It includes information on the exact cargo contents, the exporter, the importer and who is transporting the cargo.

4. The container, which holds the 500 pairs of shoes destined for South Africa, is loaded onto a container vessel.

5. A few days before arriving at the destination point, the captain of the vessel provides a report to the government of that destination country that details the ship, its crew and its cargo.

6. The vessel has to receive proper clearance before it can enter the port. Once it has received permission, the vessel docks at a berth adjacent to large cranes that are used to unload the containers of cargo.

7. Dockworkers arrive at the ship to get to work.

8. Customs officials who have specified information pertaining each container have the authority to further inspect any containers.

9. Once the container carrying the 500 pairs of shoes for the shoe store is cleared by customs, it is loaded onto a truck trailer and can be transported to the distribution centre.

10. From the distribution centre, the shoes are separated from the rest of the content to be packaged separately for delivery to the shoe store.