Shipping Containers, Trucks, and Global Economics

As a truck towing a flatbed trailer passes you on the interstate, you take note of the fact that it looks unusual. You can't quite put your finger on what's different. Then it suddenly hits you: it appears as though the trailer is nothing more than a shipping container on wheels. That's a keen observation on your part.

Shipping containers are the backbone of global trade. And thanks to an intermodal transport system that connects trucks, ships, and railways, goods made in faraway lands eventually find their way to U.S. store shelves without most consumers giving a second thought as to how it all happens. But thank goodness it happens because it gives us access to affordable consumer goods.

Trucks Are the Last Leg

Trucks moving shipping containers represent one of the last legs in the logistics journey, according to Ohio-based Mytee Products. Shipping containers arrive at U.S. ports by way of monstrous ocean-going vessels. Some of those containers are loaded onto rail cars for transport across the country. Other containers are hauled away by tractor trailers.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the shipping container business is the modular design of the containers themselves. Again, let us talk about trucking. A shipping container being hauled by a truck is not actually sitting on a traditional flatbed trailer. Rather, it is lowered onto a frame and secured in place by a twist lock mechanism. The frame itself is pretty bare-bones; it is essentially a rail on wheels.

This design makes it incredibly easy to transport the containers. A container can be packed in China, trucked to a port, loaded onto a ship, and carried across the seas without disturbing anything inside. The process can then be repeated once it reaches U.S. shores.

Easy, Cheap, and Efficient

The entire shipping container model is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to move large volumes of goods long distances. It is just one of the things that goes into providing a seemingly endless supply of affordable consumer goods. Commercial trucking is a big part of it, too.

Trucks represent a cheap and efficient way to get shipping containers from ports and rail yards to distribution centers and, ultimately, to retail warehouses and store shelves. Upwards of 75%-80% of all consumer goods sold in the U.S. are transported by truck at some point.

Having said that, imagine what shipping consumer goods would be like without the venerable shipping container. What if shipping companies had not adopted the modular design they now utilize? Goods would have to be unloaded from shipping containers and then reloaded onto flatbed trailers and dry vans. That would mean more time and labor. It would also mean higher prices.

Making the World Go Around

It has often been said that money makes the world go around. That may be true, but in a world that relies on global manufacturing and shipping, the venerable shipping container is equally important. Global trade would be a lot different without it.

Next time you are tooling down the interstate and you see a tractor trailer hauling a shipping container, consider where the container might have originated from. In all likelihood, it came from somewhere in Europe or Asia. It started its journey on the back of a truck that carried it to a shipping yard. From there it sailed the mighty seas on the back of a container vessel. Now it's on its way to a distribution center somewhere in the U.S.

And you thought shipping containers were just metal boxes for creating funky new buildings. They are so much more than that.