Shipping Container

Ever wonder where the standard ocean shipping container came from?  If so, you may want to get a hobby or get out more. Maybe a couple of those after work ‘networking’ gatherings (that just happen to take place in a bar) are in order.  You really shouldn’t be wondering about things as geeky as where shipping containers came from.  But if you are wondering, they were the brain child of Malcolm Purcell McLean.  Mr. McLean didn’t just wake up one day with a revolutionary idea.  The concept was more of an evolution of two separate transportation tools and using the best features of both.

Trucks being transported on ships were the norm even before World War II.  It was a great way to get freight places without having to handle it for loading and unloading to the vessel.  The down side of ‘trailerships’, as they were called, is they also wasted valuable potential cargo space on vessels.  The other part of the evolution, even before the trailerships, was related to passenger luggage for luxury train rides from London to Paris.  Passenger luggage was placed in four large (Same Sized) containers for the train trip to keep the luggage safe and centralized for the journey. The weakness of the luggage containers is they could go no farther than the train itself thus had to be loaded and unloaded at the train.

I know you see the result of what’s coming as most people who read my articles are extraordinarily intelligent.  Malcolm Purcell McLean must have been really smart too as he also saw it coming.  McLean eventually came up with the idea of a standard sized container to hold cargo that was transportable.  With McLean’s help vessel trailers and luggage containers had a romantic tryst and the result was the shipping container which McLean patented.  In 1956 the SS Ideal-X transported fifty-eight 35 foot trailer vans, later called containers, from Port Newark-Elizabeth to Port of Houston. The sailing was successful and the container industry we take for granted today was wheels up and in the air.  Labor unions were not very happy about the innovation as freight handling just went from a cost of a little over $5.00USD per ton to a containerized cost of about 5% of the manual labor cost.

As a result of Mr. McLean’s efforts, when shipping international ocean freight there are a handful of standard methods most used.

There are full standard and high cube (a little taller than standard) container shipments (FCL) that are just like what it sounds like, a shipping container full of freight. There is also less than full container (LCL) shipping. In this instance if a shipment won’t fill a container, the freight is placed in a container with other shipper’s freight by a consolidator so the container can be made full.  In this case you don’t have to pay for the whole container to get your shipment where it is going as it is a shared container. Think carpooling for freight.

In the event your fright is a tad too tall or can’t be loaded into a standard or high cube container there is the ‘opentop container’ (OT) which is a container with no roof. Freight can be lowered in to the OT or loaded through the door with the help of a movable header beam over the door.

If your freight can’t be loaded into a standard container or an opentop, it may be able to be loaded on to a shipping platform called a ‘flatrack’ (FR) which is pretty much a container with no roof or sidewalls with tie down points.  There are typically walls on each end which are often collapsible.

Sometimes freight is so large or oddly shaped it can’t fit, or can’t be loaded, in any type of container or on any flatrack and it must ship ‘breakbulk’.  In short breakbulk is just a piece of freight that is on the ground and is handled as a single piece of freight.  It is not containerized in anyway and is sometimes crated. If the freight is a drivable vehicle that won’t fit in a container it would be roll on roll off (Ro-Ro) freight similar to breakbulk.

Of course there are a few special purpose methods sometimes used, but I thought I covered most of the major methods for ocean freight pretty well.  Although just when I think I’m clever, some malcontent comes up with something new.

ATS International is the malcontent and they launched what they call the ‘Breakbulk Box’. As a port partner of JAXPORT in Jacksonville, Florida, the maiden voyage was out of JAXPORT on a sailing to Puerto Rico.  The top half, including walls, is detachable for loading and unloading. Once reattached it performs like a standard container. By the way, let me be the first to rename the Breakbulk Box with the official common name.  From now until the end of time the ‘Breakbulk Box’ shall be called the ‘Pop Top Container’.  I think the name will work both in and out of the port terminals.

This jewel of an innovation is no small thing. There are many instances that a piece of freight cannot be loaded into an enclosed shipping container but is too weather sensitive for a flatrack or a opentop top which, other than using tarps, can expose fright to the elements. This forces shippers to pay for crating of freight which can be costly. In addition breakbulk, as well as flatrack freight, is more expensive to ship. Breakbulk freight can’t be stacked or stacked on while flatracks can often be on the top of a stack, you won’t often see a loaded flatrack stacked on.  For the former takes up all of the footprint space of the breakbulk freight from floor to the ceiling or next installed level for just one piece of freight. For the later it results in the container stack ending when a flatrack needs a home on a vessel.

With freight suited for the Pop Top Container (I like the name already) it allows for side loading or crane loading but also protects the freight as an enclosed container once the top is put back on.  In addition, just think how easy it would be to drive and secure two automobiles or one larger vehicle on the open Pop Top Container using small ramps.   The same ease of loading and unloading is created for very long weather sensitive freight that normally would have had to be crated on a flatrack.

For us transportation nerds this is very cool indeed.  Many of us in the transportation industry spend a considerable amount of time in the pursuit of selecting best practice methods of shipping and handling that serve the needs of keeping the freight safe and meeting the time schedule requirements.  This task must also make the selection as economical as possible.  Not fitting the methods of transportation mode and handling methods to properly match freight needs can be devastating.  The Pop Top container just made that job a little easier. Although new to the market, I see the Pop Top container being a hit with some shippers who currently use breakbulk, opentops, and flatracks for shipping.  It’s just one more thing on a long list of things I can’t understand why I didn’t think of it.