The words box and boxing have multiple meanings and associations. One of the most familiar images of the box is when it is dressed up in colourful wrappings for its contents to assume the form of gifts or presents on social occasions like birthdays and weddings, anniversaries and festivities. The day after Christmas is widely celebrated as the Boxing Day when boxes of gifts are exchanged between relatives and friends. In a larger perspective, the box is a preserver of values, bonder of relationships, facilitator of trade and connector of markets.
Flashback to the 1950s, when an American trucker by name Malcom Mclean, routinely transporting cargo from nearby industrial areas to the harbour, contemplated on the humongous expenditure of time and money involved in moving cargo from origin to port warehouses, whereafter, based on vessel arrivals, transferring it again therefrom to the shipside for piece by piece loading on board the ship. The conventional process of handling cargo in different types of packing, loaded and unloaded by vast crews of dockworkers was unwieldy, unreliable and so slow that ships spent longer time docked in ports than they did sailing at sea. Pilferage of cargo was rampant with dockworkers, as it was spoken about in lighter vein, happily returning home after every eight hour shift work with moderate earnings and all the swiped Scotch and goodies they could carry home.
In a sudden epiphany, on one of his daily trucking loops between inland warehouses and the harbour, Mclean wondered at huge savings in cost and time if the entire cargo-laden truck or, optionally, cargo compartment of the truck could be detached and loaded aboard the ship. The concept of loading cargo-laden trucks into the ship’s holds was given up for the time being because of large wastage, in so doing, of potential cargo space on board the vessel. He returned home to work on his vision and subsequently collaborated with engineer Keith Tantlinger to develop the marine freight container, container handling equipments and purpose-built ships for international carriage of containers.
Mclean’s efforts eventually bore fruit when he succeeded in loading fifty-eight trailer vans, later called containers, aboard a refitted tanker vessel by name ‘Ideal X’, sailing her on 26th April 1956 from the port of Newark, New Jersey to Houston, Texas. The rest, as they say, is history of how international transportation evolved in consonance with growth in world trade. Today, the container is at the core of a highly automated system for efficient movement of goods from anywhere to anywhere. The price of everything fell, starting with the cost of loading and unloading. When Mclean looked at the costs of his first container ship, he found that it cost $ 0.16 per tonne of containerized cargo compared with $ 5.83 per tonne of loading loose cargo. Shipments could be made in smaller lots in containers than the bigger aggregations of cargo required to qualify for space in conventional vessels, thereby reducing capital locked in larger inventories. Incidence of damages, inherent in multiple physical handling of cargo packages at various points, plummeted, and pilferage of cargo was practically eliminated because freight containers were packed and sealed at factories. Productivity surged at ports; where earlier the dock labour only moved a few tonnes per hour on to a conventional cargo ship, they were now able to load a few hundred tonnes per hour on to a container ship. As a consequence, ships became bigger in size and enhanced in efficiencies, spending lesser time at ports. Since the freight container was able to move on multiple modes of transportation, it could be switched from ship to rail car, or trailer truck, or a barge, and vice versa to traverse entire distances from farm to fork in the case of agro produce and, as far as manufactured products were concerned, from centers of production to interim distribution and final consumption locations.
The tremendous strides in container movement across all modes of transportation coincided with a global reduction in trade barriers as a result of European integration and various agreements on tariffs and trade between countries. Ports such as Busan in South Korea, Charleston and Seattle in the USA, and, progressively, Singapore and Hong Kong moved into the front ranks of world’s seaports, and massive new ports sprung up in places where none had existed before, such as Felixstowe in England, Salalah in Oman, Jebel Ali in UAE, Laem Chabang in Thailand, Kaohsiung in Taiwan, Tanjung Pelepas in Malaysia, Nhava Sheva, Vallarpadom, Krishnapatnam and Kattupalli in India. Growing countries desperate to scale up in economic development were now hopeful of realistically becoming suppliers to wealthy nations situated across enormous distances. Huge industrial complexes mushroomed in developed countries leveraging on lesser cost of bringing in raw materials and turning them out as finished products. Supply chain management companies were enabled to develop value-added services like JIT (Just In Time) deliveries, where spare parts to assembly lines or raw materials to production centers were delivered as close to actual requirement as possible, effecting significant cost savings in holding inventories. The scenario also facilitated multinational operations of industrial majors who could integrate isolated factories into networks facilitating competitive sourcing of production from available options. A study of 22 industrialized countries indicate that containerization has substantially boosted trade volumes and globalization, more than all the trade agreements put together in the past fifty years.
Not bad for the box that holds a greater significance in my life, dominating my career years in its revolutionized manifestation as freight container. What is so important about the freight container as to specially deserve its statement in glorified terms? By itself it is nothing. A soulless aluminium or corrugated steel box, held together by welds and rivets, with a wooden floor and doors at one end, the standard freight container has all the romance and allure of a world traveller. The value of this utilitarian object lies not in its form, but in how it is used. The freight container enables multimodal transportation of all types of packed goods, bulk dry and liquid, and perishable cargo, making shipping an end-to-end logistical operation in place of earlier port-to-port movement under conventional cargo vessels. A modern container terminal bristles with traffic, at a scale that strains the limits of imagination. Everyday thousands of containers arrive and depart by trucks and trains. Tractor-trailers laden with containers stream through terminal gates, where scanners read the unique number on each container and computers compare it against data in ships’ manifests before the trucker is directed to the delivery location. Tractor units arrive to connect trailers laden with containers that have been discharged from the ship by RMQCs (Rail Mounted Quayside Cranes). Trains carrying double-stacked containers roll into an intermodal terminal near the dock, where giant straddle cranes remove one container after another from rail-flats. Outbound container trains, bound to rail yards adjoining manufacturing and logistics hubs located a few thousand kilometers away, are assembled on the same terminal for loading containers by same straddle cranes. The totality of all these activities amounts to a nearly seamless system for intermodal transportation of freight around the world.
By the time I entered the scene in Bombay in the latter half of 1977, containerization was in its infant stages in India. Involved in diverse responsibilities ranging from operations, marketing and profit centre management of containership services and multi-modal logistics across major ports in India, the Middle East and Africa, I have been witness to the steady growth of containerisation in all these geographies. The first container ship to call an Indian port was of APL, with ‘President Tyler’ arriving at the port of Cochin in 1973, virtually pioneering the concept in India (see pics, all images courtesy private archive and google). It was soon followed by other major carriers operating regular liner containership services initially from Cochin, Bombay and Calcutta, and subsequently from all other major ports of India. Global trade is presently facilitated by the annual movement of close to a whopping 175 million boxes (measured in TEUs or twenty foot equivalent container units) laden with all varieties of agro produce, perishables, raw materials and finished products, a figure that is growing at an annual rate of 6 to 7%. If these statistics are considered in terms of total throughput at container terminals worldwide, the current annualized number would swell to around 600 million TEUs, as throughput includes movement of transhipmemt and empty containers.
Refinements in container types and features, container ships, container terminals and container handling equipments appear to be at a saturation stage, at a time when stakeholders are crossing the sixty year milestone of boxing with challenges of shipping and intermodal logistics. Where to, will international trade and developments in transportation advance from here? While international trade is poised for consistent growth in a globalizing world that is rapidly shrinking into inter-connected, increasingly compacted entities, where markets are expanding through steadily increasing demand and supply of merchandise, it is difficult to surmise future innovations and developments in transportation. As the world salutes the inventiveness of Wright brothers and Henry Ford, in regard to airplane and automotive assembly line, every freight container, on a tractor trailer, rail flat or aboard ship, is a celebratory reminder of the genius and pioneering endeavours of Malcom Mclean and Keith Tantlinger. The glowing testimony thereof is the by now ubiquitous box, and box-ship, constituting vitally integrating links in global transportation and supply chains.