How Used Shipping Containers are Continuing the Freight Storage Revolution

Often, the simplest things have the greatest impact; the lever, the wheel, the plough. Every era has its great innovation, its technological revolution, and it’s usually characterized by a very small change in the way we approach a particular problem that then grows into a whole new mode of operation. The invention of the standardized shipping container was one such innovation.

Pre-1950, before the commercial shipping industry caught on to the novel idea of metal shipping containers conceived by the US military during World War II, industry reports estimated that as much as 60 – 75 per cent of the cost of shipping was incurred portside. The labour, time, loss, damage and theft involved in the loading and unloading through what is known as ‘breakbulk shipping’ so prohibitive, and carries so many disadvantages, that international trade made up a lesser part of the US economy in 1960 than it did in 1930. It was generally accepted that the time it took to load and unload a cargo ship was equivalent to the time it took for that ship to make its actual voyage.


Shipping Containers
By Michael Allen Smith under CC BY-SA 2.0


The Intermodal Shipping Container

Double handling is a major restriction on trade. Break bulk shipping entailed the loading and unloading of cargo that came in everything from boxes to blankets, in all different sizes. Once it reached port, it then had to be unloaded, and re-loaded onto trains or trucks on its way to a final destination. Ultimately, it was a former trucking tycoon that recognized the problem and, in partnership with an engineer, devised a solution.

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That tycoon was Malcolm McLean. In 1955, inspired by the US military’s large metal shipping containers, he and engineer Keith Tantlinger developed a container that would come in a standardized size and be designed in such a way that it could easily be moved between different modes of transport – principally rail and road transport.

This innovation not only allowed for speedy loading portside, but meant that cargo could be transported from the point of manufacture to the point of delivery without unloading and re-loading. It minimized the risk of loss, damage and theft, and its reduction in transportation time was significant. It revolutionized not only the shipping industry, but also had a direct and significant impact on the global economy.

In throwing open the doors of international trade, investment opportunities as well as immediate profit trickled down from tycoons such as McLean and the Matson Navigation Company and allowed everyone from railroad operators to truck drivers and store owners to generate more efficient, cost-effective business. Used ocean shipping containers became a lifeline for fledgling shipping providers, and today there are whole companies that are founded on used shipping containers for sale. From the simple idea of a standardized box, I took the simple idea of used shipping containers and have succeeded in opening the doors of trade even wider.


container ship
By Derell Licht under CC BY-SA 2.0


The Impact of Standardization

A few short years after the intermodal shipping container revolution began, organizations like the International Maritime Organization, the Inter-governmental Maritime Consultative Organization and the European Commission itself began to publish industry guidelines for standardization of sizes and operation. They realized that what they were seeing was not an option, not some alternative means of transport, but a revolution that had already begun to dominate the industry.  Intermodalism began to define the industry, and shape the era.

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While there are several predominant types of containers, with variations such as the Australian RACE container and the Euro-Pallet container, both of which are slightly wider to accommodate their respective pallet sizes, the fixtures and mountings are uniform. This means that containers from all over the world will stack and sit side-by-side with only marginal overhang. Further, requirements such as a CSC Safety Approval plate, and the warranties that come with used cargo containers for sale, mean that consumers have a reliable idea of the durability of used shipping containers.

Essentially, and fundamentally, these boxes are built to last and to weather the open seas. Corrugated weathering steel, incredibly robust twist-lock fasteners and today’s security measures mean that companies who offer these used shipping containers for sale can only do so if they are in good condition. The market for used shipping containers is large, catering not only shipping but also storage providers and even architects.

Imports and exports now make up 30 per cent of the US economy, with exports alone generating over $2 trillion a couple of years ago.


The Future of Container Shipping

The industry changed rapidly as a result of container shipping, and while relatively uniform sizes come with absolutely uniform fittings, a variety of containers exists for the transport of different kinds of cargo. Aside from the Euro-Pallet and RACE varieties, there are also variations such as the taller hi-cube containers for voluminous but light cargo, and insulated, refrigerated and general dry containers. “One size”, or at least one standard mounting system, may fit all, but that doesn’t mean that freight storage is limited to a particular cargo.

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Within the revolution itself, innovations occur all the time. Standards have improved to such a degree that used containers offer as much in terms of quality, protection and efficiency of labour and time as new containers. Lifespans increase to compound and enhance their inherent efficiency, and the future of shipping containers is one that looks set to keep growing as more and people discover their uses.