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The Shipping Container Was Great. So What’s Next?

May 4, 2018 10:33:32 AM / by Fauad Shariff

Today, standardized shipping containers are such an integral part of every segment of our economy that it’s difficult to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. But the modern shipping container traces its roots back only about 60 years. Prior to its invention, freight was mostly handled as break bulk cargo, a process that was expensive, time-consuming, and very unreliable.

Once the shipping container became the standard for transporting freight, trade changed forever. The sheer volume and value of goods traded around the world grew exponentially and continues to grow to this day. It’s not hyperbole to say the shipping container changed the industry: it made trade more efficient; it globalized trade at a scale like never before; and it introduced standards that benefited the entire industry. It remains the greatest innovation in freight management of the last six decades...perhaps the last 600 years.

That’s all great, but it also means that the core infrastructure of the industry is frozen in time and is sorely in need of innovation -- the container itself might be improved, but it’s unlikely to be completely reinvented. So what’s on the horizon that has the potential to provide comparable advancement?

The easy -- and, frankly, cliched -- answer is “digitization.” But really, digitization simply transfers information from analog formats like paper into bits and bytes. Some digitization has already occurred as we’ve all shifted most of our workload to email...and more is likely to come. But it’s clearly not enough.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been writing about ways that true innovation can jump-start the transformation of our industry. To drill down a bit, this week we’re offering a few broad areas and trends to watch as the age of logistics innovation begins to unfold.

  1. Tracking - Tracking capabilities are all the rage in freight management. Last-mile tracking has been a feature available to consumers for a long time (e.g. “Track Your UPS Delivery”). And freight forwarding professionals have been able to keep tabs on their shipment at origins and destinations. But the next leap in tracking promises to bring transparency and control across every mile. Real-time tracking for in-transit freight as well as real-time updates on its condition (especially important for hazardous or perishable goods) will change the way goods are stored and handled while giving shippers and carriers a new level of control and insight on their business.
  2. More standardization - This is where the blockchain might completely transform our industry. For a primer on blockchain technology and how it applies to ocean freight, see our two-part article here and here. Put simply, a unified ecosystem of all the paperwork involved with global trade would make trade more viable for more people and drastically reduce delays and inefficiencies that come with customs checks, document handling, and other bits of paperwork. Standardization through a secure platform could dynamically speed up the end-to-end supply chain.
  3. Data-driven infrastructure - Our digitized systems are now collecting more data than ever across every step of the logistics chain. With scientific analysis of this data, we’re now able to implement new systems and business processes that put that analysis to work. The emerging benefits could include faster and optimized trucking and sailing routes, improved ships, or even super-efficient new methods of transport (think drone shipping or cargo hyperloops).

These are just three examples of the opportunities and approaches that will come to the fore in the next age of innovation. The shipping container was great. Hey, we probably wouldn’t be making a living without it! But enough time has passed since the last revolution in shipping. It’s time to turn our heads to the future and lean in to the next big disruption.


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Topics: Commentary, Technology, Container Shipping, blockchain, Innovation, Digitization, shipping container

Written by Fauad Shariff

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