Intermodal Containers or How Stuff Gets To Where It's Going To

Shipping goods around the world, or at least what was long known as the 'civilized world', is a practice that was transported out as far back as the time of the Phoenician and Greek empires, if not further.

Indeed the term 'shipping' that is used for moving the goods themselves, can quite obviously be traced back to the practice of moving them over water.

If we go even further back in time, we are sure to find the first instance of the use of a container, unfortunately I am unable to provide an exact, or even approximate date for this.

Whatever the goods were shipped and handled in pots, nets, crates, or in modern day containers, the principle has always been the same. Move the goods from A to B with a minimum of spoilage, cost and do it as quickly and efficiently as is possible.

And so we find ourselves, around three thousand years later, still using very similar techniques for shipping goods around the world.

Ships have changed of course, gone are the wooden, wind and sail powered boats and so are the original containers that held the goods they transported.

In the modern world of huge, in some cases three hundred and sixty metro long, diesel powered container ships, huge gantry cranes and side loaders, non-bulk goods are widely transported in large, intermodal containers.

This avoids the time consuming complexities of break-bulk shipping (shipping items separately in casks, barrels, nets and boxes) and makes the loading and unloading of large container ships a relatively simple operation.

There are over seventeen million freight containers in the world today, and they come in many different sizes, with containers varying from around two and a half meters to over sixteen metres in length.

Intermodal containers are quite simply, rectangular steel boxes with doors at one end, the word 'intermodal' meaning that they can be moved from one form of transport to another without unloading or relating the contents. The fact that they are rectangular is one of their largest strengths, the uniform shape enabling for easy stacking and for maximizing the use of available space on board ship and at port.

But they still need to get from ship to port and vice versa, not to mention onto trains, trailers, trucks and other forms of transport in order to complete their journeys.

At port, containers can be handled by a variety of different machines, including gantry cranes, reach stackers and side loaders.

Gantry cranes, or ship to shore cranes, are normally used in larger ports and have a supporting steel framework that can carry containers the length of the quay at dock. Cranes of one form or another are one of the oldest means of moving cargo from ship to shore and vice versa, and date back to at least the middle ages.

As their name suggests, reach stackers have a long arm, at the end of which the load is picked up, enabling them to reach over obstacles and stack items to a certain height. They are usually used in small to medium sized ports with their ability to reach to a second row of containers proving invaluable and meaning that blocks of stacked containers can be stored four deep.

Side loaders are a variation on the fork lift truck. Unlike the standard fork lift, the side loader carries the load at the side of the vehicle and within the chassis area, meaning that long loads, such as intermodal containers, can be transported lengthways without adversely affecting the balance of the vehicle.

In smaller port areas and docks, as well as in yards and in the loading and unloading of trains, lorries and other overland haulage vehicles, side loaders can prove invaluable as their ability to move containers lengthways means that they are able to travel narrows aisles and move containers through smaller spaces with ease.

The contents of intermodal containers vary a great deal. Almost anything you can imagine will be shipped via container at some point and probably some things you would not. In fact, where you are sat reading this now, it is likely that one or more of the items around you has seen the inside of a container at some point, sometimes even the seat you're sitting on.

It's quite easy to come to the conclusion that intermodal containers are an essential part of modern life and that the world would be a very different place without these unassuming and often plain looking, simple steel boxes.