Containerisation system

Containerisation system. Containers are not new. From earliest times human beings have used objects designed to hold other things. Even nature did this before man thought of it. The egg is an obvious example. The use of containers in shipping is also not new. Jars for oil and wine were used thousands of years ago.

However, what is new today is the concept of “unitisation” and the system of containerisation that results from unitisation. The huge scale of the system and the manner in which the system has influenced and affected the maritime industry leads to new ways of seeing transport of goods by sea and, with intermodalism, also by land or by air. Transport has changed from sea transport from port to port being dominant to simply “transport” of goods. While goods are integrated or unitised into containers, transport itself is integrated. In such an integrated transport system, which is what containerisation is all about, no link in the transport chain can be overlooked, from the design of containers, ships, trains, cranes and handling methods to the procedures, documentation, electronic data interchange and standardisation of hardware and software.

Containerization has brought about a “revolution” in the industry and ships are more productive, a container ship being probably six times more productive than older, general and break-bulk cargo ships. In addition to allowing gains in operating efficiency, the use of containers to move goods in international trade has probably introduced a safer system of cargo transport with the goods less subject to pilferage because of the reduced handling of individual packages. However, while pilferage may have reduced, the entire container is frequently stolen.

Containerisation in its modern form is considered to have started in the United States in the 1950s but there are records of containerisation systems even before the Second World War and also during the war when containers were used to supply the United States military.

The containerisation system has many components, both physical (the “hardware”) and non-physical (the “software”), the latter mainly comprising relationships between the parties involved in the system and other variables. The physical components comprise the containers themselves (commonly called “boxes”), the ships that carry them, the other modes of transport used such as in the rail and road haulage sub-systems, the berths and shore infrastructure such as container yards (CY) and container freight stations (CFS), and also documentation and computers. The non-physical sub-systems involve container leasing versus owning, clerical functions, communication, relationships between different carriers, utilisation and load factors, competition between carriers, marketing, port congestion, processing time such as with Customs, availability of trained personnel, and so on. To describe the entire system sufficiently well would require a complete book. There are a number of good books available. Here, brief mention will be made of some of the hardware.

A “container” is best defined in Art. 11(1) of the “International Convention on Safe Containers” which entered into force in 1977:

“Container” means an article of transport equipment:

(a) of permanent character and accordingly strong enough to be suitable for repeated use;

(b) specially designed to facilitate the transport of goods by one or more modes of transport, without intermediate reloading;

(c ) designed to be secure and/or readily handled, having corner fittings for these purposes;

(d) of a size such that the area enclosed by the four outer bottom corners is either:
(i) at least 14 sq. m. (150 sq. ft.) or
(ii) at least 7 sq. m. (75 sq. ft.) if it is fitted with top corner fittings;”

A “corner fitting” is:

“… an arrangement and apertures and faces at the top and/or bottom of a container for the purpose of handling, stacking and/or securing.”

The containers can have standardized dimensions, the standards imposed by the International Standards Organisation (“ISO”), but many ocean carriers, particularly those from the United States, use other measurements. The ISO has established standards for container strengths and fitting in addition to sizes. In 1968 the ISO also began work on developing an international standard for the marking of freight containers. This was because, in those early days of containerisation, there was considerable confusion because of the variety of numbering systems developed independently by container owners. Eventually, by 1971, the International Container Bureau (“BIC”), based in Paris, was able to establish a standard code, the “BIC-Code”, to give each container some unique identity (See BIC Codes).

Standardization is beneficial because of interchangeability of the containers between transport modes, the economy of mass production, uniformity of handling devices and methods (which lead to the ease of training for handlers) and minimum wasted space on board the transport vehicle and at storage areas on land, to name only a few.

ISO standards for size vary from 8 feet to 8 feet 6 inches in height and 8 feet in width. The lengths can vary between 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet and 40 feet. The 20 feet and 40 feet boxes are the most common, giving rise to new terminology:

“TEU” which is one unit of measurement of ship size, cargo handling statistics, and other uses. The TEU is a “twenty-foot equivalent unit”. The “FEU” is also commonly used, and is a “Forty-foot equivalent unit”.

In the United States, which has most of the containers owned by carriers or lessors, nearly 60 per cent of the containers are in FEUs. In the United Kingdom, about 60 per cent are in TEUs. Also in the U.S., many other lengths are used, ranging up to 45 feet, 48 feet and 52 feet, each by different carriers. The heights used also depend on the clearance beneath bridges and tunnels when the containers are used in land transport modes. In some countries “high cube” boxes can be used, where the heights go up to 9 feet 6 inches.

The increase of dimensions does have an impact on the organisation of combined transport, especially on the inland transport legs. In some countries national inland regulations and essential infrastructures may require to be changed to facilitate the transport of oversized containers. At the end of 1989, a seminar was held in the EEC to consider all the aspects of increased dimensions. No agreement could be reached on a long-term strategy on maximum dimensions but there may be a possibility that the ISO standards may be amended in the future.

The use of non-standard containers can cause some problems especially in some countries where the infrastructure cannot cope with the dimensions of such boxes.

Containers are expensive and to outfit a ship carrying, say, 1,000 TEUs, perhaps 3,000 and 5,000 boxes may be needed to make an allowance for containers which are stored ashore awaiting “stuffing” (loading), shipment on board the vessel, “stripping” or “devanning” (emptying) and also those being transported on other modes of transport.

Most containers are owned by the ocean carriers, approximately 51 per cent of the total TEUs, compared to those owned by container lessors (approximately 44 per cent). There are other owners, who are neither ocean carriers nor lessors.

The construction cost of containers has risen gradually in the last few years and with insurance and certification as to strength and fittings, the price per container becomes very high. Therefore a large amount of capital can be tied up in the containers themselves. This not only militates against many developing countries but also has transformed a large sector of the maritime industry into a heavily capital-intensive industry.

In the transport of cargo in containers, the ships are also important physical components of the containerisation system. The ships can be broadly classified into those providing deep-sea, ocean services and those providing short-sea, feeder services.

The ships providing ocean services are larger and faster and operate over longer routes with fewer ports of call. Some liner operators offer a “round the world service (“RTW”) or “global service” where large ships may go around the world in opposite directions, some ships going eastwards and others westwards. These main trade routes are “trunk routes”. Feeder ships bring cargo to “load centres” which are main ports of call, for the “mother ships” along the trunk routes. At the load centres, the cargo is transhipped. Extensive feedering is essential for operators to maintain utilisation and “load factors” which return reasonable profits on the large capital investment. The transhipment also requires large investment, particularly for storage facilities, cargo handling facilities and inland transport modes.

The feeder ships are smaller, although even larger container ships which are used for discrete liner services may bring cargo to load centres for transhipment on a RTW service. The feeders serve from peripheral ports to transhipment ports on a “through service” or a RTW service.

Three main types of container ship can be identified:

(a) the “fully-cellular container ship”, where containers are loaded into vertical guides, each container-guide system forming a “cell”. There is thus little or no wasted space. The containers may be six or more deep in the cargo holds. They are also loaded on deck in guides-and maybe stacked up to four or five or even six high. The largest container operators use this type of ship. “Partly-cellular container ships” are designed to carry part loads of containers in fixed cell guides. This latter type can also carry containers without cell guides but with container-securing fittings, in which case they are “multi-purpose container ships” (see below).

(b) the “cellular ship with Ro/Ro capability”, which has “roll-on, roll-off” facilities for vehicular cargo as well as container “load-on, lift-off” (“Lo/Lo”) capacity. These ships offer a solution to one of the deficiencies of fully—cellular container vessels, which are not really suitable for long or bulky units of cargo. This type of ship is popular on the Europe to Austral-Asia trades.

(c) the “multi-purpose container ship” (or “combination container ship”) where containers can be carried on one leg of a voyage and other types of cargo carried on the return. Such cargo can be bulk (in “con-bulkers”) or vehicles. Some multi-purpose vessels can carry break-bulk, general cargo and also containers although, instead of fixed cell guides for the containers, other fittings on board the ship are used to secure the containers from shifting and being damaged or even lost overboard because of the vessel’s movement in a seaway. These ships can carry secured containers and also general cargo on the same leg of the voyage. However, because of loading and discharging requirements for the large container units, these have to be carried in the square of the hatch and this can interfere with the stowage of general cargo shipped in the wings of the cargo holds.

The ships may or may not have their own cargo-handling fittings and equipment, such as cranes and/or derricks. Generally, the larger ships are gearless and depend on shore-based cargo gear.

The average size of container vessels is usually specified in “TEUs” per ship. The unit represents the space that would be used by a standard 20-ft.-long container.


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