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Container Transport: everything you need to know

Posted by SI-LOG on 29/05/2019
SI-LOG

Container Transport: everything you need to know

SI-LOG 29/05/2019 pubblicato in english, transport


International shipments of goods, especially in the maritime sector, are mainly based on container transport. These containers are made in standard sizes and can be transported efficiently over long distances and transferred from one means of transport without being opened. Standardised containers have transformed the shipping and transport industry, allowing the transport of goods by rail, road and ship easily, as the containers can fit onto different forms of transport with ease.

The standardisation of containers has helped increase efficiency and economies of scale when transporting the approx. $3tn of trade which goes through our transport systems each year, from aerosol cans to zebras! But how did this transport system come about, and which container shipments can be made? We talk about it in this article.

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Container transport: history

Modern container shipping celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006. Almost from the first voyage, use of this method of transport for goods grew steadily and in just five decades, containerships would carry about 60% of the value of goods shipped via sea.


The idea of using some type of shipping container was not completely novel. Boxes similar to modern containers had been used for combined rail- and horse-drawn transport in England as early as 1792. The US government used small standard-sized containers during the Second World War, which proved a means of quickly and efficiently unloading and distributing supplies. However, in 1955, Malcom P. McLean, a trucking entrepreneur from North Carolina, USA, bought a steamship company with the idea of transporting entire truck trailers with their cargo still inside. He realized it would be much simpler and quicker to have one container that could be lifted from a vehicle directly on to a ship without first having to unload its contents. His ideas were based on the theory that efficiency could be vastly improved through a system of "intermodalism", in which the same container, with the same cargo, can be transported with minimum interruption via different transport modes during its journey.

Containers could be moved seamlessly between ships, trucks and trains. This would simplify the whole logistical process and, eventually, implementing this idea led to a revolution in cargo transportation and international trade over the next 50 years.


This mode of transport developed brings enormous benefits to international trade in terms of reducing transport costs, damage to goods and theft. Since the product remains inside the container from the start, then from the manufacturer to the end customer, the distribution chain is simplified and each movement is automated thanks to the use of specific means.

Transport container: as it is

It was a logical next step that container sizes could be standardized so that they could be most efficiently stacked and so that ships, trains, trucks and cranes at the port could be specially fitted or built to a single size specification.

This standardization would eventually apply across the global industry. This standardization now applies across the global industry, thanks to the work of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) that in 1961, set standard sizes for all containers. The two most important, and most commonly used sizes even today, are the 20-foot and 40-foot lengths.

The 20-foot container, referred to as a Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) became the industry standard reference with cargo volume and vessel capacity now measured in TEUs. The 40-foot length container - literally 2 TEUs - became known as the Forty-foot Equivalent Unit (FEU) and is the most frequently used container today.


The classic container has solid side surfaces and a rear closure with two easily sealable leaves. For particular uses, such as the transport of liquids or food products, refrigerated containers, tanks, open tops (with openable roofs) and containers with openable side walls are used.


Dry storage containers – these are the standard previously mentioned shipping containers, which are used to ship dry materials, normally in 10ft, 20ft and 40ft lengths.

There are six types of Shipping Containers

Flat rack containers – these contain collapsible sides which fold, ideal for shipping boats, equipments and cars.

Open side containers – here the doors to the containers can be opened completely on the side, which allows for wider loading of materials, ideal for shipping vegetables.

Open top containers – as per the title, these containers have no roof, which enables goods of any height to be shipped, such as logs or machinery.

Refrigerated containers – for food stock or pharmaceutical goods.

Types of container shipments

Shipments by container are classified according to how many are the final recipients:

  • FCL (Full Container Load): full load container, that is when the goods must be received by a single recipient, regardless of whether the maximum weight or maximum volume has been reached or not. This type of shipment is usually preferred by those who have large quantities of goods to be sent for a single receiver;
  • LCL (Less than Container Load): partial load container, when the shipment takes place with the non-exclusive use of the container. In this case the rental can be organized so as to provide for multiple recipients; if the goods to be shipped are not enough to fill a standard container, the load is grouped with other lots for the same destination in a Container Freight Station.

World logistics largely uses container shipments (to find out the differences and the common aspects of the different transport methods, you can read “Transport by sea, by land and by air: differences and aspects in common”): for this reason, major international ports provide specifically dedicated terminals for loading and unloading of containers and their transfer on trains or trucks. Some ports have become the so-called hubs, that is the areas with the highest concentration of containers on national or international routes, especially from / to South-East Asia, Europe and North America. Within transport logistics, logistics hubs hold a significant role today and this significance – especially regarding management and handling – still increases. However, it is not only the large transport logistics hubs (seaports, public inland ports, or airports) which often act as major gateways for import and export of goods that are of major importance. There is also a big number of smaller but just as important logistics hubs like transport logistics hubs of freight forwarding networks. Once crammed into the hubs, the containers are subsequently picked up and taken to smaller terminals. This is why it is essential to constantly monitor shipments that can track the exact position of the load at any time.

And if you have to send something out of shape, so-called exceptional transport? For this kind of movements there are special solutions: you can read more about the topic in the article "SI-Log Network: all solutions for exceptional transport".

In conclusion, there is a wide range of containers, used according to the particularity of the goods: refrigerated containers, tank-containers, flat racks, open tops or open sides ... this method of transport developed after the Second World War is the most used in the world , and can be crucial in the strategy of a good logistics process.

Do you want to find out what are the current trends that are changing the world of distribution logistics? Click on the image below and read our analysis!

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➡️ Do you want further information about distribution logistics? Check this article and find out all you are interested in!

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