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  • Topic: Containerization, Intermodal freight transport, Container ship
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  • Published : November 20, 2011
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What is containerization and how did the innovative use of containers transform the distribution of goods?

“Containerisation is a method of distributing merchandise in a unitised form suitable for transportation by rail, road, air, canal and sea.” (Branch, 1996, p.194). The simple principle of the container has undoubtedly made the global economy grow, and brought the world closer together through ease of transportation (Wetherly & Otter, 2008, p.86-7).

To be able to use one single sized unit for the transportation of goods was the ultimate solution to transporting cargo, which was becoming larger part of global trade, and helped put shipping into the modern age. In 1956, Malcolm McLean used an innovative idea to transport 58 trailer trucks on a tanker, purely to avoid the busy road routes and cut the delays caused by the labour intensive process of loading and stowing small amounts of different types of cargo (Asteris, 2009). This led the world to take up the single sized unit of container for the ease of transport, primarily over water. Before Malcolm McLean’s innovative idea, boxes of differing sizes would be loaded with goods and transported. This created a number of problems.

The transporter, such as a cart or train, would be one rectangular size. Boxes of varying shapes had to be loaded onto this. Because of the difference in size, the entirety of the transporter could not be utilised fully. As the global economy grew after the Second World War, and shipping channels opened up across the world, greater amounts of cargo had to be shipped. To maximise the efficiency of the transporter, the standardised container was invented. This allowed loading into one ‘box’, transporting in one ‘box’ and delivery in one ‘box’. This notionally now allowed for ‘door-to-door’ delivery. So with McLean’s innovative use of containers, how has that transformed the distribution of goods?

Firstly, it has made it quicker. Before containerisation there was the labour-intensive process of loading and stowing small amounts of different types of cargo (Asteris, 2009). The use of cranes at docks had to be restricted to allow for both large and small boxes of varying sizes and weights. And often, the actual process of loading and unloading took longer than the actual journey of the cargo itself. So, now, the container can be loaded up with goods on a truck, and taken to the port where it is unloaded with relative ease. Cranes now could be the same size and handle much more. The principle of building blocks was used in loading the ships. One on top of the other meant that space did not have to be found for odd sized crates. McLean’s ideas were “based on the theory that efficiency could be vastly improved through a system of "intermodalism", in which the same container, with the same cargo, can be transported with minimum interruption via different transport modes during its journey. “His big insight was that the customer doesn't care how you're shipping the goods," Levinson (2007) said. "The customer wants to get it from here to there cheap and on time. The customer doesn't care if it goes by air or land or sea.” A scenario echoed by World Shipping, "Containers could be moved seamlessly between ships, trucks and trains. This would simplify the whole logistical process.” (World Shipping, 2009). The difference in time taken for the whole process was evident for all to see. Manufacturers are happier that their goods are being transported quicker, and because delivery times had been cut, goods such as food and perishables could now be moved further across the globe before their life was up. Webber (1963) writes, “The expansion of my business was because of the faster lead times. Half a tonne of fruit can be up to the north coast of the US in a day or two. I now have nothing to worry about”. Owing to the reduction in the number of ports of call, a container ship will spend less than ten percent of its time loading and unloading in port. This...
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