Container ships are the lifeblood of international trade, responsible for conveying around 90% of all traded goods across the world’s oceans and waterways. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), demand for global freight is set to triple by 2050.
It is no surprise to learn therefore that the size and functionality of container ships has changed over the decades, to accommodate the ever-expanding demand for ocean freight, reduce costs, and speed up supply chains. Here’s a look at the different types of container vessel, and how they have developed over time.
The first generation of container ships were developed from the mid 1950s to 1970. This coincided with the development of standardised shipping containers, sometimes also called intermodal shipping containers. These were steel boxes of around 8ft 6 inches long and 6ft 10 inches high, which could be safely stacked on top of each other.
They could also be transferred between different methods of transport, such as road, rail, and air, without the need to unload and reload the cargo each time. This revolutionised the supply chain, halving journey times and cutting labour costs. Some of the early container ships were converted WWII vessels, rather than custom-built cargo ships.
By the 1970s, a second generation of purpose-built container ships came into operation. These are referred to as fully cellular container ships, or FCCs. The whole vessel could be packed with containers into pre-constructed cells, both above and below deck. The containers were loaded and unloaded via cranes.
By the 1980s, the demand for world trade was expanding rapidly, and in response, the size of container ships was scaled up. Vessels were built up to the size limit of the Panama Canal, which at the time was 4,000 TEUs, or twenty-foot equivalent containers. These ships are known as the Panamax standard, and had a maximum length of 294.1m.
By the 1990s, a new standard was introduced, which became known as the Post-Panamax container ship. They have a capacity of 6,400 TEU, and although not significantly longer than previous models, they were wider and able to carry more freight.
A further class of Post-Panamax vessels, known as Sovereign Class, was developed by the 1990s, and they could hold up to 8,000 TEUs. The size of these vessel meant that port infrastructure had to be redesigned to accommodate them.
The third generation of containerships were developed during the 2000s, which are called either Very Large Container ships (VLCS) or sometimes also Suezmax, to refer to the size of the Suez Canal. They can carry about 12,000 TEU, and are up to 57m wide.
With the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2016, Neo-Panamax vessels were developed to a capacity of 12,500 TEU and up to a length of 1.20ft. Since then, there have been further developments including Ultra-Large Containerships which can carry 18,000 TEUs or more.
The most recent development is the Megamax, such as the Ever Ace, which can carry 23.992 TEUs, and is 400m long. This is the largest ship that is technically possible to travel along the Suez Canal, so any larger ships are likely to stay on the drawing board for the time being.
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