It was 11:30 am on a sunny Tuesday in mid-April, and the Hong Kong Express had been docked at Hamburg’s Container Terminal Altenwerder for exactly 33 hours. Already, the ship was half empty. Cargo from Asia was stacked in neat rows of shipping containers on the dock.
Standing in its shadow, it’s hard to appreciate just how big the Hong Kong Express is. From stem to stern, it’s 1,200 feet, nearly a quarter of a mile; from side to side it’s 157 feet, about as wide as some mega yachts are long. Fully loaded, it can carry 13,167 20-foot-long containers, the standard box used in commerce around the world. Laid end to end, that many boxes—each one containing anything from T-shirts to TVs to truck parts—would stretch for 50 miles.
As the spring sun climbed higher, glinting off the placid Elbe River, some cranes nestled containers into towering metal racks on the ship’s deck while others lifted boxes out. At full tilt, Altenwerder’s custom-built cranes can simultaneously load and unload more than 150 containers per hour. Already, full racks of Asia-bound cargo towered 50 feet above the deck, corrugated steel containers stacked like Lego blocks six deep. Still more hid unseen within the behemoth’s matte crimson hull.
Before Wednesday dawned, the Hong Kong Express would be underway once more, sailing 70 miles down the Elbe to its mouth on the North Sea. Once it edged away from the Hamburg dock, its progress amounts to a snapshot of global commerce: first a brief westward sail to the English port of Southampton, then nearly a month chugging at 25 miles per hour to Singapore…
In less than two months the Hong Kong Express called at 11 ports and traveled more than 12,500 miles. Circling the world four or five times a year, it can move 1.4 million tons of cargo annually. That’s the equivalent of 1.8 billion iPads. The ship is a link in a long, complicated, and precise global supply chain made possible by the humble boxes on board.
More than any other single innovation, the shipping container — there are millions out there, all just like the ones stacked on the Hong Kong Express but for a coat of paint and a serial number — epitomizes the enormity, sophistication, and importance of our modern transportation system. Invisible to most people, they’re fundamental to how practically everything in our consumer-driven lives works.
Think of the shipping container as the Internet of things. Just as your email is disassembled into discrete bundles of data the minute you hit send, then re-assembled in your recipient’s inbox later, the uniform, ubiquitous boxes are designed to be interchangeable, their contents irrelevant…
The container’s efficiency has proven to be an irresistible economic force. Last year the world’s container ports moved 560 million 20-foot containers — nearly 1.5 billion tons of cargo altogether. Though commodities like petroleum, steel ore, and coal still move in specially designed bulk cargo ships, more than 90 percent of the rest — everything from clothes to cars to computers — now travels inside shipping containers. “Reefer” containers, insulated and equipped with cooling units, carry refrigerated cargo and are plugged into power sources on ships or at dockside. Because the containers are all identical, any ship can move them.
That’s just the beginning of the article. Romance to me. My life and time in two separate blocks – one of those about 15 years in length within the stream of commerce called traffic management. The longer chunk was more fun. Selling stuff that came in these containers to retailers. Moving it along to consumers.
RTFA. Stuff worth knowing.