New “Megamax” Container Ships Create New Risks for Global Supply Chains

When 20,000 shipping containers carried by one giant ship reach a port, it’s like a pig in a python


Alexandria, VA, April 14, 2017 — The size of newly commissioned and built container ships has been creeping steadily upwards for 20 years, as shipping companies and shippers pursue increasing economies of scale to lower the unit costs of ocean shipping.  Now that steady evolution has reached a new milestone with the hand-over this month of the world’s largest container ship to its owner — the Madrid Maersk, 400 meters long, 58 meters wide and capable of carrying 20,568 TEU containers.

Even before this latest generation of 20,000+ TEU vessels, the supermax ships were overwhelming many U.S. ports and creating risks of supply chain disruptions and port congestion.  Of the 10 busiest U.S. ports by container volume, as calculated by the American Association of Port Authorities, at least seven are grappling  regularly with congestion.

According to a 2015 article in the Wall Street Journal, the big ships “have stressed the infrastructure to the breaking point,” said Jock O’Connell, an international trade advisor at Beacon Economics LLC.  There needs to be a concerted effort to rethink and redesign the ports to accommodate these larger vessels and the additional cargo they’re generating, he said.

It is likely to get worse.  By 2040, the volume of U.S. container trade with Northeast Asia, which accounts for the majority of U.S. overall container trade, is projected to triple compared to 2010 levels, according the federal Department of Transportation.

Port inefficiencies are magnified by these megaships.  Bottlenecks will multiply, placing strain on every aspect of port operations — loading capacity, storage capacity, flow in and out of the yards by trucks and rail.  The megaships require more of almost everything at a port:

  • Access channel depth and width
  • Air draft
  • Depth alongside
  • Quay length
  • Ship to shore crane systems height, outreach and width
  • Landside storage capacity
  • Yard equipment and terminal operating systems
  • Road, rail and barge access
  • Capacity to expand

In the near term, the new megamax ships like the Madrid Maersk — 11 more have been ordered and are scheduled to be delivered — will create the potential for disruptions at every port they visit as they load and unload their massive loads of containers.

Shippers may want to monitor these ships and avoid routes and schedules that will be impacted by the megaships. That’s precisely the kind of visibility that TransVoyant Precise Predictive Logistics (P2L) provides — not only alerting users in real-time to ship locations but predicting their future paths and timing, so P2L users can avoid the bottlenecks and disruptive impacts.

In this context, keeping your distance seems like the best strategy.

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