Evolution of container ships


    Nowadays we hear more and more about mega ships that are bigger than 3-4 football fields combined and it seems the sky is the limit for ship builders. The biggest container ship ever built is now MSC Oscar with the capacity of more than 19,000 shipping containers. To put this into perspective, the size is about 4 football fields which can carry 39,000 cars or 900 million cans of dog food! This is truly a game changer and the rate of capacity increase of container ships seems to be doubling every 10 years. This is another challenge for terminals and canals since their capacity to handle these monster ships cannot catch up in the long term. In the USA alone, no port has the capacity to handle MSC Oscar at the moment so this ship will only be servicing Europe ports for now.

    It was in the late 1950’s that international cargo was manually packed in the shipping vessels by dock workers and again manually unloaded by dock workers when they arrived. This was quite discouraging for terminals who had to hire extra labor to unload goods so one innovator converted a tanker into a ship called “Ideal X” that can carry 58 containers. Due to fast loading & unloading with the help of cranes, this mode of transportation quickly adapted by pioneers who raced about how to build bigger and better ships. The following year another ship was converted to carry 226 containers stacked in racks. One big advantage of using containers on ships is the number of theft cases decreased dramatically as well as the labor needed to handle these ships. By the end of the 1970’s the majority of consumer goods coming into US came in containers and by that time the biggest ship was around 3000 Teu’s.

    In 1988 the biggest ship was Apl Truman with capacity of 4500 Teu, in 1998 Susan Maersk became the largest ship with 8680 Teu, last year Maersk got one of the Triple E vessels with capacity of 18,000 Teu’s and in less than a year they lost the leadership to MSC with MSC Oscar’s arrival in January 2015. This trend benefited the shippers most (which still does) because bigger ships mean lower shipping cost per container.

    The Panama Canal is currently being widened to accommodate larger ships but even after it’s finish in 2016 it will not be wide enough to handle MSC Oscar. However the Nicaragua Canal would be big enough to handle these ships if the project happens. The US now imports more than 17 million of containers per year with around 60% originating from Asia. The biggest ports in US are Los Angeles ports, New Jersey ports and Savannah port each handling more than 2 million containers. Even though it’s not official yet, MSC will have another monster ship coming this Spring with a capacity of handling over 20,000 Teu’s and in the near future maybe we will be comparing how many small ships we can fit into these mega ships…

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    Rojda Akdag
    Rojda is originally from Turkey and after getting his BA from Koc University in Istanbul, he moved to New York to get his MBA at Baruch College. He has been working at MTS Logistics since 2003 and has held many positions from Operations to Development Manager. He is currently residing in Los Angeles where he is the Managing Director of MTS. Fun Fact(s): Rojda is an avid golfer, a martial art practitioner, and a motorcyclist!