Freight Modalities (4): Containers a.k.a Intermodal

Containers are an irreducible element of the international shipping process. Containers offer many advantages, but there are disadvantages too. The following describe these.

Advantages of Containers

  • Containers are easily handled using internationally standardised equipment. This makes loading and unloading non-labour-intensive.
  • The standardisation that characterises containers allows for intermodal transfer and inland shipment. Shipping containers can be carried by ship, rail wagon, road trailer, heavy lift aircraft (including helicopter).
  • Containers can be reused extensively.
  • Containers are usable beyond their primary intended purpose. They can be adapted for long-term storage and even for non-transit habitability.
  • The introduction of containers has reduced the ability of dock labour disputes to exert a stranglehold on global freight movement.
  • Container handling is highly mechanised, which increases efficiency.
  • Container placement can be optimised by software that produces loading and unloading patterns for maximised efficiency.
  • Fast transit times are available.
  • Vessel turnaround times are vastly reduced.
  • Smaller vessels can unload at larger ports where those loads can be consolidated for carriage on a super-size vessel.
  • Containers are highly robust and therefore protect their contents against extreme weather and casual interference.
  • New security initiatives allow containers to be sealed. Any tampering en route will result in a broken seal.
  • Containers can accommodate RFID technology, which provides visibility.
  • Containers can be fitted with enhanced security options, such as armoured locks and thickened walls.
  • Standard size containers can be fitted with refrigeration apparatus and other internal environmental control mechanisms.
  • The interchangeability of containers means that standard containers can be hired at low-cost.

Disadvantages of Containers

  • Some cargoes cannot be containerised. Oversize and/or overweight articles, such as industrial machinery, cannot be containerised.
  • The mechanisation required for container handling can be costly. Container lifting cranes require precision handling by skilled drivers. Mechanised and computerised handling generates efficiencies but also represents a major investment cost.
  • The expense involved in establishing and operating a container port is significant. The creation of a large vessel-capable container port is a national scale investment that has profound political and financial implications and deep ramifications for the macroeconomy, the job market, and the local environment.
  • Many containers can be easily accessed for criminal purposes. In recent years, there have been several incidents involving the illegal stowage of people inside shipping containers, with fatalities occurring.
  • Stowage is a crucial concern. Certain items of cargo cannot be stored alongside other items. Similarly, certain items of cargo, such as volatile chemicals, cannot be stored inside the same container as certain other items.
  • Containers are inexpensive to use/lease, but the steel used in their construction is costly (although this cost is usually ultimately offset by the longevity and interchangeability offered by the standard container).