Is specialisation a dead end?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

28 April 2016


This week the world of shipping, or at least some parts of it, has been celebrating the 60th anniversary of the container. Although supposedly invented by Malcom Maclaren in 1956, the idea of the container is far older. Standard sized wooded boxes that could be moved between different modes of transport have been around for centuries and there were several attempts to standardise them even further throughout the 20th century. It could even be argued that the wooden barrel that is older still has a claim to being the first attempt at creating a universal cargo container. Barrels after all could contain dry and wet goods, could be stacked both on end and on their sides and even had the advantage of being able to be moved using nothing more than man power rolling them on their sides. The common name for a barrel (tun) has even given us the word ton both as a measure of weight but also as a measure of a vessel’s capacity in volume. In the latter case it survives as the historic root for net tonnage. While the success of the ISO container cannot be disputed in some regards, it might be argued that it is also at the root of some of modern shipping’s travails. For a start, there are now containers in many more lengths and heights than is good for achieving a homogenised stow on a modern container ship, and overheights have been blamed on several occasions as being to blame for collapsing stacks and boxes lost overboard. But perhaps the biggest problem for owners of box ships today is that they are just too specialised. With cell guides in the holds they are not particularly suited for any alternative cargoes. The old multi-purpose ships that they have ousted from the 1960s onward were capable of carrying just about every type of cargo imaginable. Yes they too had a major fault in that they were so slow to load and discharge, whereas container ships can spend just a few hours in a port working the old tweendeckers could be in port for days at a time. One wonders whether that would be such a problem today given that many containerships now steam at speeds far below that which they were designed for just so as to reduce the overall capacity of the world fleet. Whether the delay is at sea or in port is immaterial if the end result is the same. There are few ships afloat today that have the versatility of some ships types of the 1980s that had ro-ro, container and general cargo handling options and which could at least be switched between trades as circumstances allowed. Traditionalists might mourn their passing but today is the age of specialist ships, one wonders though if a younger generation used to carrying a device that acts as a phone, a camera, a voice and video recorder, which allows them to transfer cash just by touching a terminal and which provides entertainment at the touch of a button might someday think that a ship that could perform multiple tasks could be the ship of the future. Image: The Quantum containership concept (Image supplied by DNV GL)