Containerization is a system of intermodal freight transport using intermodal containers (also called shipping containers and ISO containers). The containers have standardized dimensions. They can be loaded and unloaded, stacked, transported efficiently over long distances, and transferred from one mode of transport to another—container ships, rail transport flatcars, and semi-trailer trucks—without being opened. The handling system is completely mechanized so that all handling is done with cranes and special forklift trucks. All containers are numbered and tracked using computerized systems.
Containerization originated several centuries ago but was not well developed or widely applied until after World War II, when it dramatically reduced the costs of transport, supported the post-war boom in international trade, and was a major element in globalization. Containerization did away with the manual sorting of most shipments and the need for warehousing. It displaced many thousands of dock workers who formerly handled break bulk cargo. Containerization also reduced congestion in ports, significantly shortened shipping time and reduced losses from damage and theft.
Origin of Containerization
Before containerization, goods were usually handled manually as break bulk cargo. Typically, goods would be loaded onto a vehicle from the factory and taken to a port warehouse where they would be offloaded and stored awaiting the next vessel. When the vessel arrived, they would be moved to the side of the ship along with other cargo to be lowered or carried into the hold and packed by dock workers. The ship might call at several other ports before off-loading a given consignment of cargo. Each port visit would delay the delivery of other cargo. Delivered cargo might then have been offloaded into another warehouse before being picked up and delivered to its destination. Multiple handling and delays made transport costly, time consuming and unreliable.
Containerization has its origins in early coal mining regions in England beginning in the late 18th century. In 1766 James Brindley designed the box boat ‘Starvationer’ with 10 wooden containers, to transport coal from Worsley Delph (quarry) to Manchester by Bridgewater Canal. In 1795, Benjamin Outram opened the Little Eaton Gangway, upon which coal was carried in wagons built at his Butterley Ironwork. The horse-drawn wheeled wagons on the gangway took the form of containers, which, loaded with coal, could be transshipped from canal barges on the Derby Canal, which Outram had also promoted.
By the 1830s, railroads on several continents were carrying containers that could be transferred to other modes of transport. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway in the United Kingdom was one of these. “Simple rectangular timber boxes, four to a wagon, they were used to convey coal from the Lancashire collieries to Liverpool, where they were transferred to horse-drawn carts by crane.” Originally used for moving coal on and off barges, “loose boxes” were used to containerize coal from the late 1780s, at places like the Bridgewater Canal. By the 1840s, iron boxes were in use as well as wooden ones. The early 1900s saw the adoption of closed container boxes designed for movement between road and rail.
Effect of Containerization
Containerization greatly reduced the expense of international trade and increased its speed, especially of consumer goods and commodities. It also dramatically changed the character of port cities worldwide. Prior to highly mechanized container transfers, crews of 20–22 longshoremen would pack individual cargoes into the hold of a ship. After containerization, large crews of longshoremen were no longer necessary at port facilities, and the profession changed drastically.
Meanwhile, the port facilities needed to support containerization changed. One effect was the decline of some ports and the rise of others. At the Port of San Francisco, the former piers used for loading and unloading were no longer required, but there was little room to build the vast holding lots needed for container transport. As a result, the Port of San Francisco virtually ceased to function as a major commercial port, but the neighboring port of Oakland emerged as the second largest on the US West Coast. A similar fate met the relation between the ports of Manhattan and New Jersey. In the United Kingdom, the Port of London and Port of Liverpool declined in importance. Meanwhile, Britain’s Port of Felixstowe and Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands emerged as major ports. In general, inland ports on waterways incapable of deep-draft ship traffic also declined from containerization in favor of seaports. With intermodal containers, the job of sorting and packing containers could be performed far from the point of embarking.
The effects of containerization rapidly spread beyond the shipping industry. Containers were quickly adopted by trucking and rail transport industries for cargo transport not involving sea transport. Manufacturing also evolved to adapt to take advantage of containers. Companies that once sent small consignments began grouping them into containers. Many cargoes are now designed to fit precisely into containers. The reliability of containers also made just in time manufacturing possible as component suppliers could deliver specific components on regular fixed schedules.