Containers. The revolution in world trade

Containers. The revolution in world trade

The first container ship docked in Hamburg 50 years ago. This marked the beginning of the containerisation of the Port of Hamburg, which, like in many other ports around the world, has enormously boosted transhipment and changed the port economy. Therefore, we would like to take a look at the history of development and some special features around the container.

At the end of the 1930s, the American shipowner Malcom McLean worked on an idea to reduce unloading times and thus waiting times in the port. At that time, 60 men worked for a week to unload 5000 tons of cargo, consisting of boxes, bags and parcels of different sizes. McLean wanted to make this process more efficient and developed boxes that were much easier to stack. Initially there weren‘t many supporters of his idea, but above all hostilities, since the new system required fewer port personnel for loading and unloading the ships. Nevertheless, McLean sent his first container freighter from New York to Texas in 1956. This is how the revolution in international transport business began, not only at sea, but also by road and rail.

A standardized size was the basic idea, which was to make stacking easier and the available loading space perfectly usable. TEUs, or twenty-foot equivalent units, have become the global standard. These containers have dimensions of 20 feet length, 8 feet width, 8 feet and 6 inches height. In addition, there are the FEUs, which as forty-feet unit equivalents simply have a double length of 40 feet, so that one FEU corresponds to two TEUs. The term TEU is also used internationally to indicate the loading capacities of container freighters or handling in ports.

In contrast to wooden crates and sea bags, which in the past were mostly used for the goods to be transported, the packaging safety of the goods is also much higher with steel containers. The longer service life of the containers themselves, compared to wooden boxes, for example, is another advantage. Due to the high stacking on the freighters, there is a considerable weight on the lower containers, frequent transhipment between the ships or from ship to train and truck as well as strong swell on the oceans are all stresses to which a container is exposed in its life. A container must therefore be robust in nature. In order to ensure this, but at the same time not to increase the dead weight through thick material, the container has been given ribbed walls that offer the necessary stability.

Containerisation began in Hamburg with the mooring of the first container ship 50 years ago. It was the then huge American Lancer of the United States Lines shipping company, with a length of 213 meters and full of containers, which moored at Burchardkai for the first time at the end of May 1968. This ship had a capacity of 1,200 TEU, which was unimaginable ten years earlier. Today, container ships have reached completely different dimensions, and the port facilities of modern container ports with all the associated equipment and technology now follow different standards. The world's largest container ship at present is the "OOCL Hong Kong" of the Hong Kong-based shipping company OOCL. Over a length of 400 m, 21.413 TEUs can be accommodated.

These very large tubs, also called post-panamax, rarely come to Hamburg. In May 2017, the "MOL Triumph" was the first 20,000 TEU freighter to enter the Port of Hamburg, and in March this year it was the "CMA CGM Saint Exupéry". But the ships that dock regularly in Hamburg are also huge: Up to 14,500 TEUs pass over the container gantry cranes from one ship to the port. The Burchardkai Container Terminal (CTB) is the largest in the port area, with thirty container gantry cranes. However, the terminal in Altenwerder (CTA) is much more modern.
Along with Singapore, Shanghai and Shenzhen, it is one of the most modern in the world. Crane operators work around the clock in the high-tech gantry cranes in shifts. Fifteen of these so-called post-panamax bridges are available at CTA. This means that four large container ships, including post-panamax ships, can be loaded and unloaded at the same time on the 1,400 m long quay wall and the container warehouse stores up to 30,000 TEU. Where it used to take a whole week to load less and mainly with manpower, the huge container freighters now lie in a modern port like Hamburg for only a few hours to load and unload.

Millions of containers are in circulation worldwide, in 2017 there were around 200 million. They contain all the things we have built into our daily lives. Technology, food from all corners of the world, toys in all colours and sizes, furniture, clothing with and without labels. Transport costs have been reduced by 90% due to containerisation, which in turn offers us this infinite variety of products. Just like, for example, the airplane or the Internet, the container transport system has made today's form of world trade and globalization possible in the first place. As an export nation, Germany plays an important role in the international trade arena. Hamburg, the largest and ultra-modern seaport, is one of the pillars of the country's economic success.