TT Talk - Container industry: incremental change?

Lorry at port terminal

Over the last 25 years, the global container transport industry has undergone significant economic and safety developments. As with so many aspects of life, many such developments are incremental and have faced various head-winds, such that highlights from this last quarter century may not necessarily be strong indicators of future trends.

We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of this article by Ulrich Kranich, Chairman of TT Club

The work that TT undertook with McKinsey & Company leading to the publication of ‘Brave new world? Container transport in 2043’, to mark the Club’s 50th anniversary in 2018, continues to provide a solid overview of the industry and proposed four potential different worlds for the future; we are now five years into that timeline and already have seen a number of bold ‘no regret’ moves, as well as shifts in the overall landscape.

Globalisation and Trade 

The container transport industry has been a substantial beneficiary of globalisation and increased international trade. Many words have been penned concerning the ease of use of container units, as well as diversification to cater for more specialised requirements (such as temperature control or transport of liquids), and their inherent intermodality has continued to be attractive for the movement of commodities from the point of origin through to ultimate destination. This has also included facilitating the pre-manufacture collection of raw materials and components. Intermodal transportation has enabled efficient movement of goods from production to consumption, minimising handling and reducing transit times.

Intermodal transportation has enabled efficient movement of goods from production to consumption, minimising handling and reducing transit times

Such broad adoption across all land-masses of the globe has also resulted in substantial improvements to infrastructure. There has been focus on the growth of the overall container fleet capacity, and particularly the largest container ships (now exceeding 24,000 TEU), as liner operators have sought to achieve greater economies of scale while maintaining flexibility to serve different trade routes with appropriate tonnage.

The obvious impact at sea has been matched – and exceeded – by what has happened on land: a significant expansion and development of ports and container terminals. New ports have been constructed, existing ports have expanded their yard and handling capacity.

Perhaps more importantly, intermodal connectivity has improved in order to facilitate seamless movement of containers far inland. Often in the public gaze, road networks have continued to advance; less obvious potentially has been the strengthening of rail infrastructure in many parts of the globe. This latter development has benefited from political pressures for modal shift and environmental enhancement.

Furthermore, logisticians and disrupters have become adept at developing the seamless movement of freight integrating surface and air modes of transport to facilitate greater efficiencies and flexibility in order to deliver faster fulfilment, particularly fuelled for e-commerce.

Technological opportunities

The global freight transport industry has, of course, been highly reliant on systems and technologies for decades, utilising electronic data interchange (EDI), RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) and GPS (Global Positioning System) to enhance operational efficiency, tracking capabilities and supply chain visibility.

However, the industry has witnessed increasing emphasis on and possibilities for supply chain optimisation. This has included the implementation of advanced logistics and inventory management systems, enabling better coordination of cargo movement from origination, through forwarders and logistics operators, warehouse facilities to ports and shipping lines.

Such developments have been especially powered through digitisation, where capabilities have of necessity ‘come of age’ through the global pandemic. Further revolutions are set to materialise as digital technologies enable increasingly secure and transparent sharing of data across the entire supply chain, reducing paperwork, enhancing traceability, and improving operational efficiency.

The advances in data analytics and supply chain visibility tools are increasingly unlocking freight management, with real-time tracking, predictive analytics, and machine learning algorithms enabling improved decision-making, demand forecasting and optimisation in general. The advent of ‘smart’ container units ‘at scale’ in the industry will clearly integrate with such capabilities.

Equally, advances in thinking and implementation of automation and robotics, including in automated warehousing, robotic sorting systems, autonomous vehicles, and unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) have already improved efficiency, accuracy and speed in all cargo related activities.

Safety & Security

The global freight supply chain has become increasingly conscious of risks and security threats. Often driven most fervently by incidents, the industry has needed to take action to tackle both physical and digital risks. While the movement of freight intrinsically is a very physical activity for all the stakeholders, all trade activities are dependent on digital inputs and systems.

Thus, measures at both regulatory and governmental levels, as well as in the industry, need to interface effectively in order to ensure that cargo reaches destination without damage, infiltration, or adding risk or concern to others or society at large. Ensuring such integrity and safety in the supply chain has required increasing risk assessment, stricter regulations (such as dangerous goods, illicit trades, customs and the like), strengthened security protocols and ever more vigilance.

It has been TT’s mission for many years to make the industry safer and more secure. It is hardly surprising therefore to see the Club involved in a range of initiatives, working with industry partners, to address growing concerns about safety and security. This has included the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, setting standards for ship and port security, promoting stringent standards in the transport of dangerous goods, together with effective training for all involved, and the crafting of and preparation for revised regulations to support Verified Gross Mass of containerised cargo.

Elsewhere in this edition there is mention of a number of other initiatives in which the Club has been actively participating over recent years, including around the CTU Code, particularly partnering with others across the industry in the Cargo Integrity Group, and the MARIN TopTier joint industry project, seeking to address loss of containers at sea and their impact on the marine and coastal environments.

Environmental Sustainability

There has been a growing focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility in the freight supply chain. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions, promote fuel efficiency, adopt alternative fuels, and implement green practices have gained momentum, driven by regulatory requirements and the need for corporate social responsibility.

TT is standing with its membership as the industry makes efforts to reduce its environmental impact. This requires assessment not simply of eco-friendly technologies but also any wider implications to others in the global industry and the continuation of core activities. Included in this is recognition that the global objectives – such as Net Zero – will involve sharing lessons from early adopters with those that follow – an inherently mutual value.


The past 25 years have witnessed various disruptions, including from natural disasters, economic downturns, and geopolitical uncertainties, and not least the global pandemic. Each has in different ways educated the freight supply chain in building resilience, and in developing agility. The toolset that resulted includes the implementation of robust contingency plans, diversification of sourcing strategies, and investment in risk mitigation measures.

[Each disruption has] educated the freight supply chain in building resilience, and in developing agility

Such challenging scenarios have continually reshaped the global supply chain, balancing greater efficiencies, enhanced visibility, improved sustainability, and often honing collaboration among stakeholders.

In this established and successful industry, there can be no doubt that the last quarter century has demonstrated the truism that ‘change is here to stay’. The opportunities, ongoing advances in technology and the evolving global trade landscape may be expected to continue driving changes in the future.


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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Peregrine Storrs-Fox

Risk Management Director