Field Guide To Shipping Containers

In the 1950s, trucking magnate Malcom McLean changed the world when he got frustrated enough with the speed of trucking and traffic to start a commercial shipping company in order to move goods up and down the eastern seaboard a little faster. Within ten years, containers were standardized, and the first international container ship set sail in 1966. The cargo? Whisky for the U.S. and guns for Europe. What was once a slow and unreliable method of moving all kinds of whatever in barrels, bags, and boxes became a streamlined operation — one that now moves millions of identical containers full of unfathomable miscellany each year.

When I started writing this, there was a container ship stuck in the Suez canal that had been blocking it for days. Just like that, a vital passage became completely clogged, halting the shipping schedule of everything from oil and weapons to ESP8266 boards and high-waist jeans. The incident really highlights the fragility of the whole intermodal system and makes us wonder if anything will change.

A rainbow of dry storage containers. Image via xChange

Setting the Standard

We are all used to seeing the standard shipping container that’s either a 10′, 20′, or 40′ long box made of steel or aluminum with doors on one end. These are by far the most common type, and are probably what come to mind whenever shipping containers are mentioned.

These are called dry storage containers, and per ISO container standards, they are all 8′ wide and 8′ 6″ tall. There are also ‘high cube’ containers that are a foot taller, but otherwise share the same dimensions. Many of these containers end up as some type of housing, either as stylish studios, post-disaster survivalist shelters, or construction site offices. As the pandemic wears on, they have become so much in demand that prices have surged in the last few months.

Although Malcom McLean did not invent container shipping, the strict containerization standards that followed in his wake prevent issues during stacking, shipping, and storing, and allow any container to be handled safely at any port in the world, or load onto any rail car with ease. Every bit of the container is standardized, from the dimensions to the way the container’s information is displayed on the end. At most, the difference between any two otherwise identical containers is the number, the paint job, and maybe a few millimeters in one dimension.

Standard as they may be, these containers don’t work for every type of cargo. There are quite a few more types of shipping containers out there that serve different needs. Let’s take a look at some of them, shall we?

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A Big Ship Chop Shop On The Georgia Coast

Last week we saw a hapless container ship vaulted to fame, where people converged on its combination of mind-boggling size suffering an easily relatable problem of getting stuck. Now that it is moving again, armchair engineers who crave more big ship problem-solving should check out [David Tracy]’s writeup on the salvage operation of an overturned car carrier ship, the MV Golden Ray published by Jalopnik. If the ship’s name doesn’t ring a bell, the writeup opens with a quick recap.

Written for an audience of gearheads, [Tracy]’s writeup walks through some technical aspects of the salvage plan and initial results of execution. Citing from the official entity in charge, the St. Simons Sound Incident Response Unified Command, and augmented with information from elsewhere. Even though the MV Golden Ray is “only’ half the length and a third of the gross tonnage of our meme darling MV Ever Given, it is still a huge ship. Every salvage operation this big is unique, requiring knowledge far beyond our everyday intuition. At this scale, most Internet “Why don’t they just…” comments range from impractical to absurd.

Fortunately, people who actually know how to perform salvage work designed plans, submitted by multiple bidders, each making a different tradeoff in cost and speed among other factors. The chosen plan was to cut the ship into sections small enough to be carried by barge for further processing elsewhere. This required a huge floating crane, a chain pressed into cutter duty, custom fabricated lugs for lifting, and similarly custom fabricated cradles for the barges.

But we all know that no plan survives contact with reality. While this plan was seemingly chosen for speed, it hasn’t gone nearly as fast as advertised. Certainly the pandemic was a huge hinderance, but cutting has also been slowed by pieces built far stronger than spec. Delays also meant more sediment buildup inside the wreck, compounding headaches. Other bidders have started saying that if their plan had been chosen the job would be done by now, but who’s to say their plan wouldn’t have encountered their own problems?

In time St. Simons Sound will be cleared as the Suez Canal has been. Results of their respective investigations should help make shipping safer, but salvage skills will still be needed in the future. At least this operation isn’t as controversial as trying to retrieve the radio room of RMS Titanic.

JIT Vs. AM: Is Additive Manufacturing The Cure To Fragile Supply Chains?

As fascinating and frustrating as it was to watch the recent Suez canal debacle, we did so knowing that the fallout from it and the analysis of its impact would be far more interesting. Which is why this piece on the potential of additive manufacturing to mitigate supply chain risks caught our eye.

We have to admit that a first glance at the article, by [Davide Sher], tripped our nonsense detector pretty hard. After all, the piece appeared in 3D Printing Media Network, a trade publication that has a vested interest in boosting the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. We were also pretty convinced going in that, while 3D-printing is innovative and powerful, even using industrial printers it wouldn’t be able to scale up enough for print parts in the volumes needed for modern consumer products. How long would it take for even a factory full of 3D-printers to fill a container with parts that can be injection molded in their millions in China?

But as we read on, a lot of what [Davide] says makes sense. A container full of parts that doesn’t arrive exactly when they’re needed may as well never have been made, while parts that are either made on the factory floor using AM methods, or produced locally using a contract AM provider, could be worth their weight in gold. And he aptly points out the differences between this vision of on-demand manufacturing and today’s default of just-in-time manufacturing, which is extremely dependent on supply lines that we now know can be extremely fragile.

So, color us convinced, or at least persuaded. It will certainly be a while before all the economic fallout of the Suez blockage settles, and it’ll probably longer before we actually see changes meant to address the problems it revealed. But we would be surprised if this isn’t seen as an opportunity to retool some processes that have become so optimized that a gust of wind could take them down.

Traffic Jam In The Suez Canal; Container Ship Run Aground

A vital shipping lane has been blocked in Egypt, as a 220,000 ton container ship, the MV Ever Given, became lodged sideways in the channel Tuesday morning local time. The Suez Canal, long a region of trading and strategic importance, has been blocked to travel in both directions as authorities make frantic efforts to free the ship.

Live tracking shows a flurry of activity around the stricken vessel. If you find yourself transiting the Suez Canal next week, don’t do this. Everyone’s patience is going to be pretty thin.

The Ever Given is carrying goods from China to Rotterdam, making a northward journey through the canal. The exact reason for grounding remains unclear, though such incidents are often due to mechanical malfunction or navigational errors in the tight confines of the channel. Like many important waterways, the Suez Canal requires transiting vessels to take on a pilot. This is to ensure that ships passing through the canal have someone onboard with experience of navigating the 673-foot wide passage. However, incidents still happen, as with huge container ships, there is minimal room for error.

A flotilla of tugboats dispatched to the area have begun working to free the ship, working in concert with excavators on the banks of the canal. This photo taken by [Julianne Cona] at the incident shows the sheer scale of the problem — with the excavator digging at the bow a tiny speck in the shadow of the gigantic ship.

We’re sure shipping firms and residents of the Netherlands are eager for a quick resolution, whether its to avoid costly delays or simply to get those online purchases sooner. If you live near the canal and want to keep an eye on what’s happening, you could always grab a software-defined radio and track things in real time. Alternatively, watch the progress on Vessel Finder. And, if you’ve got strong opinions on the proper procedure for navigating the Suez Canal, sound off in the comments!

EU Duty Changes, A Whole VAT Of Trouble For Hackers?

It could be said that there are a number of factors behind¬† the explosion of creativity in our community of hardware hackers over the last couple of decades, but one in particular that is beyond doubt is the ease with which it has been possible to import small orders from China. See something on AliExpress and it can be yours for a few quid, somewhere in a warehouse on the other side of the world it’s put into a grey shipping bag, and three weeks later it’s on your doorstep. This bounty has in no small part been aided by a favourable postage and taxation environment in which both low postage costs and a lack of customs duties on packages under a certain value conspire to render getting the product in front of you a fraction of the cost of buying the thing in the first place. Continue reading “EU Duty Changes, A Whole VAT Of Trouble For Hackers?”

Tales (and Advice) From Setting Up A Product Line

Making something that has to get into others’ hands involves solving a lot of different problems, many of which have nothing at all to do with actually building the dang things. [Conor Patrick] encountered them when he ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for an open-source USB security key that was not only shipped to backers, but also made available as an ongoing product for sale. There was a lot of manual and tedious work that could have been avoided, and so [Conor] laid out all the things he wishes he had done when first setting up a product line.

Turning these unprogrammed boards into finished products then shipping them is a big job.

If the whole process is a river, then the more “upstream” an issue is, the bigger its potential impact on everything that comes afterwards. One example is the product itself: the simplest and most easily managed product line is one that has only one product with no variations. That not only minimizes errors but makes supply, production, and shipping more straightforward. Striving for a minimum number of products and variations is also an example of something [Conor] didn’t do. In their crowdfunding campaign they offered the SoloKeys USB device — an implementation of the FIDO2 authentication token — as either USB-A or USB-C. There were also two types of key: NFC-capable (for tapping to a smartphone) and USB only. That is four products so far.

Offering keys in an unlocked state for those who want to tamper makes it eight different products. On top of that, they offered color choices which not only adds complexity to production, but also makes it harder to keep track of what everyone ordered. [Conor] also observed that the Kickstarter platform and back end are really not set up like a store, and it is clunky at best to try to offer (and manage) different products and variations from within it.

Another major point is fulfillment and in [Conor]’s opinion, unless the quantities are small, an order fulfillment company is worth partnering with. He says there are a lot of such companies out there, and it can be very time consuming to find the right one, but it will be nothing compared to the time and effort needed to handle, package, address, and ship several hundreds (or thousands!) of orders personally. His team did their own fulfillment for a total of over 2000 units, and found it a long and tedious process filled with hidden costs and challenges.

There’s good advice and background in [Conor]’s writeup, and this isn’t his first rodeo. He also shared his thoughts on taking electronics from design to production and the more general advice remains the same for it all: be honest and be open. Under-promise and over-deliver, especially when it comes to time estimates.

Automate The Freight: Amazon’s Robotic Packaging Lines

In the “Automate the Freight” series, I’ve concentrated on stories that reflect my premise that the killer app for self-driving vehicles will not be private passenger cars, but will more likely be the mundane but necessary task of toting things from place to place. The economics of replacing thousands of salary-drawing and benefit-requiring humans in the logistics chain are greatly favored compared to the profits to be made by providing a convenient and safe commuting experience to individuals. Advances made in automating deliveries will eventually trickle down to the consumer market, but it’ll be the freight carriers that drive innovation.

While I’ve concentrated on self-driving freight vehicles, there are other aspects to automating the supply chain that I’ve touched on in this series, from UAV-delivered blood and medical supplies to the potential for automating the last hundred feet of home delivery with curb-to-door robots. But automation of the other end of the supply chain holds a lot of promise too, both for advancing technology and disrupting the entire logistics field. This time around: automated packaging lines, or how the stuff you buy online gets picked and wrapped for shipping without ever being touched by human hands.

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