Executive Briefings

Opinion: How Container Shipping Could Reinvent Itself for the Digital Age

In 1967, the British Transport Docks Board (BTDB) commissioned McKinsey to assess a recent development from America: container boxes. The first ships built expressly for this new way of shipping goods had recently been launched, and a few U.S. lines carried them on their regular service. Our report advised the BTDB to rethink everything in light of this new disruption.

Today the industry is roiled by another one: digital technologies, big data, the Internet of Things. Let’s imagine it 50 years from now.

Autonomous 50,000-TEU2 ships will plow the seas — perhaps alongside modular, drone-like floating containers — and the volume of container trade will be two to five times what it is today.

Short-haul intraregional traffic will increase as converging global incomes, automation, and robotics disperse manufacturing footprints. Container flows within the Far East will remain huge, and the second-most significant trade lane may link the region to Africa, with a stopover in South Asia.

After multiple value-destroying overcapacity and consolidation cycles, three or four major container-shipping companies might emerge: 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 forwarding as a stand-alone business will be virtually extinct, since digital interactions will reduce the need for intermediaries. All winners, closely connected through data ecosystems, will have fully digitized customer interactions and operating systems.

A fully autonomous transport chain will extend from loading, stowage, and sailing to unloading directly onto autonomous trains and trucks, with last-mile deliveries by drones.

Some customers prepared to pay a premium will want container-logistics providers fully integrated into their supply chains. Others will continue to demand the cheapest sea freight. Both will expect transparency and reliability to be the norm, not the exception.

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Today the industry is roiled by another one: digital technologies, big data, the Internet of Things. Let’s imagine it 50 years from now.

Autonomous 50,000-TEU2 ships will plow the seas — perhaps alongside modular, drone-like floating containers — and the volume of container trade will be two to five times what it is today.

Short-haul intraregional traffic will increase as converging global incomes, automation, and robotics disperse manufacturing footprints. Container flows within the Far East will remain huge, and the second-most significant trade lane may link the region to Africa, with a stopover in South Asia.

After multiple value-destroying overcapacity and consolidation cycles, three or four major container-shipping companies might emerge: 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 forwarding as a stand-alone business will be virtually extinct, since digital interactions will reduce the need for intermediaries. All winners, closely connected through data ecosystems, will have fully digitized customer interactions and operating systems.

A fully autonomous transport chain will extend from loading, stowage, and sailing to unloading directly onto autonomous trains and trucks, with last-mile deliveries by drones.

Some customers prepared to pay a premium will want container-logistics providers fully integrated into their supply chains. Others will continue to demand the cheapest sea freight. Both will expect transparency and reliability to be the norm, not the exception.

Opens external link in new windowRead Full Article