It’s just a plain box made of corrugated steel, about 8 feet tall and 20 or 40 feet long. But the humble shipping container changed our world.SAP_ContainerShip_273040.jpg

How so? This simple box ushered in a new era of international trade. Containerization enabled all sorts of goods to be shipped around the globe, traveling from ship, to rail, to truck, and all without the need for unpacking and repacking the cargo at each step in the journey.

These days, there are millions of containers out there. The port of Shanghai alone handles more than 32 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) a year.

And everything from the coffee beans for your morning cup of joe to the shirt on your back probably spent time packed in a container and stacked on the deck of an ocean-going behemoth.

But don’t be fooled by their simple appearance. These containers – and the global network of seaports and intermodal transport companies that handle them – use some sophisticated technology. And this technology is helping make the future of international shipping more secure, coordinated, and productive.

Smarter Boxes


Security at the world’s seaports is a particularly hot topic these days. Risks range from cargo theft to the transport of hazardous materials and acts of terrorism.

In a recent Congressional Hearing on port security, for example, U.S. Senator Tom Carper said in part, “Our ports and waterways are the lifeblood of our economy . . .  we must look for a better way to address security risks while preserving the necessary speed of moving containers through the ports.”

Today’s shipping containers can carry a variety of onboard sensors and transponders. Using technologies such as global positioning (GPS), radio frequency identification (RFID), and wireless communications, these devices can identify and monitor individual containers across the supply chain.

This can be simple environmental data like high temperature or excessive humidity. But intelligent devices are also capable of reporting when a security seal is broken or indicating the presence of chemical, biological, and radioactive materials.

The Hyperconnected Seaport


Think outside the steel box too. A modern seaport is a vast network of fixed assets and moving parts – bridges, locks, marine markers, roadways, parking spaces, rolling rail stock, and tens of thousands of trucks that enter and exit the dockyards every day. All these puzzle pieces can be wired.

And increasingly, this is the case. Some port authorities are developing strategies to analyze real-time information, such as bridge openings and truck locations, and share it among the various shippers, warehouses, and transport companies.

Taking advantage of a digital economy can help the port authority smooth traffic flow inside the port and increase its container handling capacity.

Greater Automation


“The technology that helps the port keep the containers moving is becoming increasingly high tech and data-centric.” This insight comes from a recent edition of Pacific Maritime Magazine.

Author Michael A. Moore says we can look for even greater levels of automation as equipment operators move from their perches high in gantry crane cabs to plush office chairs closer to the ground.

He describes how high-tech operators use joysticks to remotely control cargo machines equipped with cameras, gyroscopes, GPS, and motion sensors. As the containers travel across the port, they are precisely tracked in a 3-D matrix of the terminal and the movements automatically updated in the terminal’s operation system.

Moore points out that unmanned cargo handling equipment can run faster, reduce cycle times, and help create safer working conditions for dock workers.

The Next Generation of Shipping


In the 1980s, even the largest ships could only accommodate about 4,000 containers. Tomorrow’s megaships will carry far more. The shipping industry continues to look for data-based solutions to help keep pace.

Who knows where the next big idea will come from.

Last month, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) even sponsored a maritime-themed hackathon. The event invited maritime professionals, data scientists, and interested citizens to come up with ideas that could enhance port operations. The teams worked with 20 different datasets – some 32 million data points in all – covering vessel movements, cargo information, trucking data, tidal and weather information, and hydrographic maps.

Ports like Singapore apparently just want to be ready. Ship manufacturers are already hard at work building a single vessel that has a TEU capacity of 18,000 of those simple steel boxes.

Follow me on Twitter at @JohnGWard3.

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