95% of all manufactured goods around the world are moved via container shipping. In 2017, upwards of four trillion dollars worth of merchandise were sent over the oceans. It is an industry that has laid a solid foundation for the global economy, but it wasn’t always as vast or as efficient as it is today. The concept of shipping started in third century BC, when merchants made the realization that transporting products overseas was quicker and more cost effective than by land. Early on, products were loaded on to ships in sacs, barrels & wooden crates with groups of dock workers packing them on decks or in tight spaces below. Often times, ships spent more time at ports than they did sailing. Not much changed until 1956. That is when American truck driver Malcom McLean stacked 58 metal boxes on a ship going from New Jersey to Kingston. This idea revolutionized the industry entirely. The containers could not only protect the products, but when the ship stopped at ports, truck beds and freight trains could take them away without repackaging. An abundance of innovation ensued and container sizes were standardized. In 1966 Moore-McCormack lines started the first trans-Atlantic container service and then in 1968 one of the first modern container ships hit the water. The Japanese Hacone Maru carried 752 twenty foot containers, using a standard still used today. Cargo can now be moved from purpose built vessels to rail and roads in substantial volumes, reducing transport costs by at least 75%.
By the 1980’s, around 90% of manufactured goods were containerized, from designer clothing to food, to home goods, electronics and heavy machinery. Globalization exploded as ships moved Asian goods to the West and vice-versa, making stops at dozens of ports along the way. Recently, the Panama & Suez canals were expanded, allowing for bigger ships to cross, and in greater numbers. However, it has not all been smooth sailing. The industry has been overwhelmed by too many ships in the water, igniting a series of price conflicts that plunged many operators deep into the red and completely sank others. This caused a wave of consolidation, seeing the top 20 ocean carriers shrink to 11, a number that is expected to get even smaller. Shipping has also seen criticism from governments and environmentalists, who say that it is responsible for around a quarter of the world’s hydrogen oxide pollution. As a result, operators are adopting cleaner fuels like natural gas.
Today the industry continues to expand. Container ships are as high as the Empire State Building if turned upright, and can move more than twenty thousand boxes each. A single container can hold ten thousand Ipads at a cost of five cents each. The average TV coming to the US from China, costs less than two dollars to ship. The most recent growth has been in refrigerated shipping. Fresh produce, food and flowers that once only moved by plane, are now shipped on satellite tracked reefer boxes that keep them fresh.
So, what does the future hold? Likely, crewless behemoths running on batteries that can move fifty thousand containers and global cargo distributed through block chain technology that will eliminate paperwork and further cut costs. Technology is improving rapidly in the shipping industry. As for how the industry will form itself; however, no matter what happens in the future, whether it be crewless electric ships or low cost environment saving products, shipping and packaging will always be essential to the American life.