Today's hyper-globalized economy thrives on long-distance shipping. A surprising percentage of the clothes we wear, the food we consume, and the products that we use on a daily basis are transported from faraway places inside a container on a cargo ship.
Maersk Line, the world's largest container shipper, transports containers between 343 ports in some 121 countries, carrying “millions of tons of cargo every single day."
Despite its antiquity, cargo shipping is still as central to our modern way of life as the internet; while the internet facilitates the circulation of information, container shipping allows the smooth movement of goods from almost any place on the planet to another.
The freight-forwarding industry has been generally successful in accomplishing its objectives with minimum fuss. But, how would the world economy fare if critical shipping lanes connecting Asia, Europe, and the Americas were challenged?
This is by no means an unlikely apocalyptic scenario. The international shipping industry is constantly threatened by political tension between world powers and regional players, trade wars, and sudden shifts in consumer demands.
The unfortunate advent of COVID-19 serves as a wake-up call that even a simple virus can make oceangoing vessels port-bound for long stretches of time, disrupting the supply chain of many businesses around the world.
Even in the absence of viruses to disrupt global trade, container shipping is a risky business. High seas, after all, are dangerous territories teeming with uncertainty. As such, businesses often have a hard time organizing the timely shipment of their freights.
The container shipping industry is capitalizing on technology to mitigate risks in various ways and keep up with the ever-changing demands of customers.
Emerging technologies have enabled cargo shippers to tailor their services to the needs of their clients. Thanks to the adoption of blockchain-powered solutions by container shippers, businesses can now monitor their cargo in a real-time manner, which helps them in bookkeeping and efficient scheduling of their supply chain.
Richard Morgan, Maersk's regional managing director for West and Central Asia told TBY that his company offers a digitalized service in which “customers can book with confidence and know their container will be on the right ship and arrive at the right time."
Morgan adds that Maersk's container fleet in Dubai and elsewhere is equipped with TradeLens—a technology jointly developed by Maersk and IBM which uses blockchain to bring “transparency, reliability, and security" to the client's supply chain.
“Around 60% of the world's global container fleet and other shipping lines have signed up for it. TradeLens is signing up ports and customs authorities around the world. As all of this is connected, our customers clearly see a compelling value proposition emerging," he told TBY.
Environmental hazards are another challenge associated with the industry. Container shippers have been criticized for their carbon footprint and pollution, but container shippers are becoming increasingly more aware of their social responsibility.
Technology is helpful in this regard, as well. With advancements in marine engineering and materials science, some shipyards can now deliver ultra-large container ships (ULCS). Madrid Mærsk, one of the largest and most impressive containerships that has ever sailed the oceans, is also one of the most ecofriendly vessels at sea.
Simply by virtue of its size, Madrid Mærsk's energy consumption per ton of freight is significantly lower than any other oceangoing vessel thanks to economies of scale.
In a sense, megaships such as Madrid Mærsk are an unexpected win-win option, favoring both the global economy and nature.