The humble container goes through life mostly ignored, and certainly unappreciated, when you consider that it keeps the world’s economy moving. Since entering service in the mid 1950s, the 40 feet long standardized metal boxes have fundamentally changed how goods are transported. Instead of loading and unloading entire ships, item by item, workers (or robots) can offload the containers en masse, then plop the multicolored boxes onto trucks or trains for transport to the interior. As a result, international shipping is faster, cheaper, and easier than ever before.
But global trade—including your Amazon ordering habit—has grown to the point where ports are struggling to handle all the containers coming in. The largest ships create sudden surges of 5,000 containers to handle when they dock. That leads to choke points, and delays in getting goods to supermarket shelves, or your doorstep. Annoying, when youre waiting for Black Friday deals or Christmas presents. Troubling, when 90 percent of global trade moves through this process at some point.
Weather, labor issues, or changes in last-minute demand can quickly cause chaos. A dockworker dispute at the end of 2014 led to lines of dozens of ships appearing offshore at the ports of LA and Long Beach, while hundreds of trucks idled onshore waiting for them. The backlog took months to clear.
To avoid such nightmares in the future, the Port of Los Angeles, the country’s largest by container volume, is partnering with General Electric to get smart about data sharing. That should lead to new insights, and better forecasting about whats coming, and therefore better planning about how to deal with it. Instead of hearing about incoming containers just two days in advance, everyone from customs authorities to dock operators to trucking companies will get a two week heads up. That’ll give them more time to prepare, to identify choke points, and hopefully keep things running smoothly.
We headed down to the docks to see how the new deal could reshape the waterfront—and the economy.