The lifeblood of the economy

We live in a global economy. That fact is thanks to, in large part, one thing. Have a guess.

The one thing that makes the global economy go round is not an bank, or a country. It is a piece of metal that weighs just under 4 tonnes (metric). It is the standard shipping container.

The shipping container seems an unlikely candidate for economic giant. After all, it isn’t very smart. It’s been around since 1949 and has barely changed since. It costs a little under £4000 (about $6000) to buy new and has a lifetime of over a decade. 90% of all shipping containers have no power or computer chip. It is a dumb tool. It is, frankly, a glorified cardboard box.

But it has amazing powers. As of 2012, there were over 20 million shipping containers on Planet Earth. That equals about 525 million tons of shipping. They travel the world on vast container ships, thousands at a time. They are loaded onto trains and sent across continents. They are moved through enormous ports the size of cities by magnetic cranes. They can be stacked into towers 20 deep like Lego blocks. They carry more than 60% of all cargo sent by ship around the world. That’s a lot of power for a sheet of metal.

Here is the power of the shipping container. You can take a shipping container and fill it with whatever. Toys, tin cans, metal ore, whatever. You can then take it to a port in any part of the world. China, Australia, America, Tanzania, Chile. Wherever. You pay for it through whatever system the port uses. Then you choose a destination. Chile, Tanzania, America, Australia, China, wherever. Then you say goodbye to your container.

The container is loaded onto a ship with a giant crane. The container will be along with hundreds or thousands of others on a ship. The ship will sail for days or weeks. There is a small chance that the container will fall overboard, but that is fairly rare. And then the ship will put in at a port. It will sail into a dock flanked by a massive crane. The crane will clamp onto each container, attaching to the structural hard points at each corner of the container. It is carried into the air and dropped down onto a truck. The truck can carry it to a storage yard. There it will be stacked onto a huge pile.

From there, it can be loaded onto another ship. It can be loaded onto a train. It can be sent by truck to another place.

And throughout that entire process, the container was left completely unopened. The container wasn’t checked. This can be bad – there aren’t any reports of terrorists packing containers with bombs, but it could happen. But it does make the process unbelievably fast.

Back in the 1800s, ships were packed with boxes and crates and barrels of varying sizes. The only way to unload a ship was to take every single piece of cargo, move it into a net suspended from a crane and lower that crane to the ground. Each box is then taken, again by hand, and loaded onto a train carriage and moved. Where every single box is then moved individually again. Unloading a ship would take up to a week.

But today, even though we have ships with hundreds of times as much capacity, unloading is far quicker. We can move 36 tons of cargo in one go, with one crane. The average time for a cargo ship to be in dock is 24 hours. 12 hours to unload every container, 12 hours to reload. And then off the ship goes.

Were it not for shipping containers, you couldn’t have cargo ships. They rely on the ability to stack containers in massive quantities. You also wouldn’t have a globalised economy. Transporting clothes from Bangladesh or electronics from China would be out of the question. It would have to be taken either by land, air, or shipped at vastly inflated costs and timescales. What you ate and wore and used would be produced in the same continent as you, and maybe the same country – at a massively increased price.

It is thanks to a simple piece of metal that we live the life that we do. Be grateful for standardization.

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