Container shipping is a system of intermodal freight transport using intermodal containers (also called shipping containers and ISO containers). The containers have standardized dimensions. They can be loaded and unloaded, stacked, transported efficiently over long distances, and transferred from one mode of transport to another—container ships, rail transport flatcars, and semi-trailer trucks—without being opened. The handling system is completely mechanized so that all handling is done with cranes and special forklift trucks. All containers are numbered and tracked using computerized systems.
Container shipping originated several centuries ago but was not well developed or widely applied until after World War II, when it dramatically reduced the costs of transport, supported the post-war boom in international trade, and was a major element in globalization. Containerization did away with the manual sorting of most shipments and the need for warehousing. It displaced many thousands of dock workers who formerly handled break bulk cargo. Containerization also reduced congestion in ports, significantly shortened shipping time and reduced losses from damage and theft.
Containerization greatly reduced the expense of international trade and increased its speed, especially of consumer goods and commodities. It also dramatically changed the character of port cities worldwide. Prior to highly mechanized container transfers, crews of 20–22 longshoremen would pack individual cargoes into the hold of a ship. After containerization, large crews of longshoremen were no longer necessary at port facilities, and the profession changed drastically.
The effects of containerization rapidly spread beyond the shipping industry. Containers were quickly adopted by trucking and rail transport industries for cargo transport not involving sea transport. Manufacturing also evolved to adapt to take advantage of containers. Companies that once sent small consignments began grouping them into containers. Many cargoes are now designed to fit precisely into containers. The reliability of containers also made just in time manufacturing possible as component suppliers could deliver specific components on regular fixed schedules.
Coming soon – a directory of Container Shipping resources in South Africa