TT Talk - Keeping boxing clever
The rapid, widespread and now all-pervasive adoption of the standardised freight container concept certainly justifies why so little has changed in the last 50 years. Any fundamental re-engineering would need to account for the numerous interfaces with the ubiquitous box – but where might advance be possible?
The essential parameters for freight containers are seemingly set rigidly. There is little doubt of the success of the standardisation that has allowed these units to pass seamlessly around the globe carried on ships, barges, trucks and trains, lifted on and off by common handling equipment, and packed with goods that require to be stored or moved from one place to another.
Exploitation of freight containers
The very success and widespread use has resulted in innovation to accommodate more specialised requirements – such as tank containers and temperature controlled units – while at the same time the range of commodities now transported in general purpose units has continued to grow. Inevitably, the consequent demands on the basic engineering are greater.
The consequent demands on the basic engineering are greater
Studies have indicated that the average mass of cargo being packed in units has been increasing over the decades – and the amendment to ISO 668:2013 (Series 1 freight containers – Classification, dimensions and ratings) is anticipated to set the maximum gross mass rating of standard containers of all sizes to 36,000 kg (79,370 lbs). Alongside this, the much-debated increase in container ship size over the last two decades, means that these units (albeit not fully laden) may commonly be carried ten high on deck. Thus, even before the pandemic-related crunch of trade demand, congestion and shortages, this workhorse was under stress.
Such dynamics in the industry have previously raised concerns around the standards and technology in place in container shipping, not least arising from collapse of container stows at sea. One result was the Lashing@Sea project that was reported to IMO in 2010 and led to a review of some of the core ISO standards that govern freight containers, as well as the introduction of mandated Verified Gross Mass (VGM) in July 2016. However, the Lashing@Sea project contained a number of insights around the multiple factors affecting the integrity of a container ship’s secured stow.
The shocking loss experience Q4 2020 to Q1 2021, particularly in the Pacific, gave final impetus to a call to consider again all aspects of container securing at sea, resulting in the initiation of the TopTier project. It is, obviously, too early to predict any particular outputs, but the thorough, holistic review of practices and technologies might be expected to deliver opportunities for improved certainty – even regarding the really low failure rate.
The thorough, holistic review of practices and technologies might be expected to deliver opportunities for improved certainty
While the essential structure of containers remains, there have inevitably been other innovations along the way. For example, traditional plywood flooring has given way in some instances to bamboo, in part on environmental grounds. Perhaps more significantly in relation to the fire risk, some container owners have moved to steel floors for their units.
Others, have investigated means of improving security by rethinking the need to have doors (such as CakeBoxx), or reducing weight through use of composite materials and introducing other smart capabilities (such as Aeler). Alongside these, there have in recent years been significant advances in ‘smart’ capabilities in general, overcoming technical hurdles and starting the process of democratisation of such visibility beyond temperature controlled fleets. It might be hoped that future designs will mitigate some of the risks related to the movement of invasive pests.
In a world where there are approaching 25 million container units it is important for all stakeholders to have confidence, not only in the inherent capability of the boxes, but also that safety is a given – all the more so in stressed trade circumstances where positioning containers has proved challenging.
From the regulatory perspective, while containers will be built in line with requirements and standards that delivers the necessary consistency and interoperability of the intermodal units, it is the responsibility of national jurisdictions to ensure that standards are maintained through the operational life of all freight containers. While there may be arguments that it is high time to digitise the historic tin CSC plate, users need to be able to rely on what is presented; where this is not the case by reason of out of date information, national regulators are failing the industry – and undermining the important database work provided by Bureau International des Containers (BIC).
BIC extended its service capability with the introduction of BoxTech, in part to support the VGM requirements, but also enhancing fleet controls for owners and operators. This innovation continues to offer increasing benefits to the industry as it gains traction.
Beyond regulation and databases, actors need confidence that the box is in sound and safe condition. Traditionally, this confidence has been underpinned by the work of inspectors and repair depots; this could be about to change with the advent of vibration analysis technology that promises to provide real time information on the box at the point of any lift through the supply chain, supporting physical inspections, repairs and fleet management.
Beyond regulation and databases, actors need confidence that the box is in sound and safe condition
Many things may have appeared to remain the same for the intermodal industry through the decades; 2022 may just be a year to watch.
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