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  December 18th, 2017 | Written by

Container Shipping 50 Years From Now

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  • How container shipping could reinvent itself for the digital age.
  • McKinsey sees autonomous 50,000-TEU ships will plying the seas in 2067.
  • Freight forwarders won’t survive industry transformation.

Container shipping has been around for 50 years. What do the next 50 years hold?

McKinsey investigated containerization in 1967, and concluded that the industry would have to rethink everything. Given the conclusions of a recent McKinsey report, it may be time to rethink everything again.

Here’s how McKinsey imagines container shipping 50 years from now. Container volumes will be two to five times what it is today and that means deploying larger ships than carriers are envisioning now. In fact, McKinsey sees autonomous 50,000-TEU ships will plying the seas in 2067, alongside modular, dronelike floating containers.

Three or four major container-shipping companies will emerge. McKinsey describes these as “digitally enabled independents with a strong customer orientation and innovative commercial practices, or small subsidiaries of tech giants blending the digital and the physical.” Freight forwarders as such won’t survive this transformation because digitalization will obviate the need for intermediaries. Freight operators of 2067 will be closely connected through “data ecosystems,” and “will have fully digitized customer interactions and operating systems.”

Changes in the global economy—reductions in income inequality, and the deployment of automation and robotics which will result in a more dispersed manufacturing footprint—will contribute to the growth of short-haul intra-regional cargo traffic. Trade between Asia and Africa will be globally significant.

Loading, stowage, sailing, unloading, and deliveries will all be automated and autonomously operated, and shippers desiring premium service will pay for logistics providers to become fully integrated into their supply chains. But the market for cheap sea freight won’t go away.

The report advises shipping companies to invest in digital technologies “to differentiate their products, disintermediate value chains, improve customer service, raise productivity, and cut costs.” Technology companies may capture most of the value from customer relationships if they move faster than traditional logistics companies.

Integration will be an important feature of the future of container logistics. “Integrated logistics providers,” the report noted, “could make freight forwarders irrelevant by mastering the complexity and the customer interface.”

“The shipping industry was built on the vision of strong leaders who dared to sail through the storms,” the report concluded. “Although it now once again faces a period of disruption—this time from digital technologies—there is a path forward for companies willing and able to seize the day.”