TT Talk - Any box will do: heightened risk in times of market crisis

Buoyed by the development of vaccines, 2021 promised a return to ‘normal’. The logistics industry has continued to operate at full capacity and beyond. The last year presented multiple challenges to every aspect of the freight industry – and there appears little respite as we head into 2022.

Over the last year, the industry has responded to a range of stresses that have included, amongst many things, a sustained imbalance of equipment, brief blockage of the Suez Canal, sporadic port closures and ongoing congestion in numerous nations, together with strong demand for consumer goods from Asia.

The last half century has developed high reliance on standardised freight units for the transport of goods internationally, especially in the maritime mode. Where containers are in short supply, those depending on the arrival of an empty unit for packing and dispatch of goods might take a more lenient approach to pre-packing inspection, in the knowledge that an immediate replacement might not be available. The consequences of inadequate controls will be varied – and scarcity of units is exacerbated when poor condition requires the cross stuffing of cargo.

Maintain regulatory compliance

One of the immediate repercussions of equipment imbalances, shortages and increase in new equipment costs has been a tendency for owners and operators to retain equipment that would ordinarily have been retired from service. The direct impact of older equipment being in service could well be negligible, so long as it remains well maintained and serviced in line with the International Convention for Safe Containers (CSC).

The direct impact of older equipment being in service could well be negligible, so long as it remains well maintained and serviced

There has additionally been anecdotal evidence of containers being brought back into service from retirement. This practice has the potential to present more challenge for all in the supply chain. Ensuring that controls, processes, records and, importantly, maintenance regimes remain valid is critical to underpin safety. Maintenance and condition are vital for all in this complex web of inter-relationships, where control at national level may also be somewhat opaque. 

Fit for purpose

Naturally, as the age profile of container fleets increases, additional maintenance may be required to ensure physical integrity and cargo worthiness. Controls will include may facets, but in the context of the cargo protection TT recently highlighted the prevalence of wet damage risks where units are inadequately checked and repaired prior to packing. 

Maintaining the in-service repair standard is required to prevent the risk of serious structural failures. Some of these may be less obviously visible, but corrosion, physical damage or wear to door hinges, pins and locking equipment, for instance, have the potential to cause bodily injury, either where equipment becomes seized and requires force to operate, or in more serious cases where a door becomes detached. 

Maintaining the in-service repair standard is required to prevent the risk of serious structural failures

Inevitably, the floor of a container is a component that is routinely placed under stress through the packing and unpacking phases; whether pallet or forklift trucks are used, maintaining the strength of the floor panels to prevent them being compromised through weakness or delamination is essential. 

Similarly, corner posts and castings are vitally important components for effective intermodal operations; the ability to engage twist locks on spreaders for lifts, or for connection aboard containerships and on other modes of transport is critical in mitigating risks of dropping or loosing containers from their fixed position. 

Another key aspect of structural safety is the stacking capability of the container, which has been subject of regulatory debate over the last decade. While in container yards, units will typically be stacked four or five high, on board containerships this can extend to ten or eleven high. A serious structural deficiency in a container towards the bottom of such a stack, in dynamic circumstances, has the real risk of causing a collapse and loss overboard

Pass the real test

As container manufacturers seek to ramp up production to meet ever-growing demand, additional scrutiny may be required – beyond the testing regime implemented to secure regulatory approval for a series – to ensure that all units are indeed designed and manufactured to withstand the rigours of normal transport and handling, rather than just to pass the required regulatory tests. During the lifetime of a box it may be expected that a range of commodities will be packed, any of which may stretch the design capabilities, whether loose scrap, high density cargo or flexitanks. Further, whilst the majority of containers will be carried or handled in a fashion aligned to the units themselves – spreader-based lifting equipment, land-based platforms with corner fixings or cellular ships – this is not a given. The recent supply chain crunch has spurred a resurgence of the use of bulkers to carry units, presenting various risks including increased stresses on the containers themselves.

Additional scrutiny may be required to ensure that all units are indeed designed and manufactured to withstand the rigours of normal transport and handling

The intermodal supply chain generally has thrived by being invisible to general public. The last two years, with considerable trade imbalances fostered by the pandemic, compounded by various disruptions, have brought the industry into the limelight. It may be a moot point as to whether this is welcomed, but clearly there is some heat to ensure that the profile is positive.

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If you would like further information, or have any comments, please email us, or take this opportunity to forward to any others who you may feel would be interested.

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    09/02/2022

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Mike Yarwood

TT Club

Date18/01/2022