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Adoption of the standard container revolutionized global cargo shipping, bringing vast improvements in efficiency and ease of trade. However, the growing need for volume flexibility and increasing time and cost pressures will necessitate new container formats and processes, especially in the context of shared logistics networks and urban delivery.

Key Developments & Implications

Container transport is the lifeblood of global trade. 90% of international cargo is moved via ocean freight transport, and shipping containers represent the foremost type of housing for products as they travel along currents, rails, and roads. Meanwhile, unit load devices (ULDs) provide secure clustering of airfreight. While COVID-19 has had an acute impact on international trade with thousands of container ships cancelled from Asia to Europe and North America, the reopening of economies and the resumption of global supply chains points to a future of recovery and sustained growth of use for containers.

The standard steel ocean container and ULDs have not seen ground-breaking innovations since their invention in 1950s. Industry regulations, as well as the multitude of participants in global supply chains have made it difficult for novel ideas to drive new standards. Still, technological advances in sensors, connectivity, and materials paired with the growth and complexity of e-commerce delivery will most likely enable a new wave of containers in the mid to far future.

  • Connected containers will provide real-time visibility of global cargo flows, enabling customers, facility operators, and carriers to obtain critical information of the supply-chain and the goods they hold inside. Utilizing sensors and next-generation wireless networks, connected shipping containers and ULDs can act as point measurements of when, where, and possibly why disruptions or delays have occurred, all the while empowering handlers with opportunities to proactively intervene and minimize impacts along supply chains.

    Furthermore, outputs from IoT-connected containers can be integrated with operational data from the operating systems of container terminals, which when combined with artificial intelligence (AI), transforms ordinary terminals into smart yards or smart ports. Optimized vessel and vehicle traffic and efficiently orchestrated container movements will substantially increase terminal productivity without the need to expand real estate.

  • Collapsible containers will help reduce transportation runs and inventory costs within a supply chain. While useful in transporting goods and packages in a standardized format, shipping containers and ULDs are voluminous, and when imbalances in shipment patterns cause growing stockpiles of empty containers in one location and a dearth of them in another, additional amounts of space and cost must be expended just for simply storing and resupplying empty containers in a supply chain.

    Collapsibility or foldability compacts a container to about one-fourth its original size, making both the inventory and transportation processes more economically feasible. Although vehicles are still needed to move the containers, having a truck or cargo ship transport four times as many containers than it had previously will lower the transportation runs needed and their associated emissions.

  • New modular and small-format containers will enhance direct goods loading and increase flexibility within a supply chain, especially in urban environments. Today, products and packages are continuously loaded in inefficiently sized containers, unloaded, re-consolidated into smaller groupings, and then loaded again in similarly inefficiently sized containers.

    In the future, paired with wireless sensor technology and collapsibility, combinations of appropriately sized, but standardized, modular “pi-containers” would constitute or even replace shipping containers and eliminate the need for re-consolidation. These smaller building-block containers would benefit urban last-mile delivery the most, enabling the transfer and separation of goods for vans or cargo bikes in places where larger vehicles are unable to travel, all the while maintaining security of the cargo.

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