Standardizing The Box: The Power of the Shipping Container Pt. 4 🛳

shipping container lifted on truck

A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.

Or so I once read.

A committee, sub-committees, and task forces almost killed the shipping container as they tried to align on a global standard – but luckily in 1970 (after nearly a decade) committees agreed upon a standard.

Eventually stakeholders agreed upon sizes, which was crucial for global trade as railroads, trucks, and ships across the globe had to align if this new technology would succeed.

As with any inflection point from a new technology, there were clear winners and losers and the first-mover advantage was on display.

At this point in history global trade through the US East Coast ports got a lot of traffic, but the container opened the door for Asia to ship to the West.

Just as NJ supplanted NYC as the major hub in the East, similar shifts happened with

  • Seattle & Portland
  • Oakland & SF
  • Felixstowe & London

And then there were major ports that got left in the dust like Boston & London.

The first mover advantage was a huge lead because of the amount of real-estate development required.

For places like Long Beach, Seattle, and Oakland which, up until that point, were not very productive, this leaped them ahead of other cities in their region that had previously had more traffic.

Rotterdam was getting completely rebuilt from WWII, so they were able to look at this with a clean slate. Inertia was not their enemy. Now they’re the biggest port in the EU.

Singapore, too, was one of the ports quick to move and has reaped the rewards. Of course, looking in the rearview mirror the cities that adopted their systems look smart.

The challenges overcome in Vietnam is what finally proved the concept to the world. The shallow waters of Vietnam’s ports slowed down unloading to a snail’s pace Before they dredged the harbor and built cranes for the containers, it would take months to unload a ship. They would have a shallow water barge tie up to a larger breakbulk ship and unload cartons one at a time. One round trip would take 30 days (!).

Now we’re entering the 70s.

The shippers are making stops at Japan to fill up containers with electronics and other goods before sailing East.

With businesses like Nike, Walmart, and Price Club all starting around this time we now know that imports are going to shift from being East Coast dominated to the West.

In the final part of this series we’ll discuss just-in-time shipping and its impact on our economy today.

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