Quite separate from the bulk and liquid trades identified above is the rapidly increasing sector of unitized cargo. By unitized these days we tend to mean containerized, an ugly word, but one now in common use in the shipping business.
In its wider sense, however, the unitization of cargo has included palletized goods, packaged timber, jumbo bags and pre-slung cargo, as well as the specially designed lighters and barges used in LASH (Lighter Aboard Ship) systems.
There is no doubt that the freight container has revolutionized the general cargo trade. Steady advances in technology in ship design and cargo handling equipment, heavy investment in terminal development, and the adapting of road, rail and inland waterway transport to the now familiar 20 and 40 feet containers has introduced a truly standardized multi-modal transport system. T
he ability to stuff and unstuff containers at points remote from ports and terminals, the reduction in pilferage and damage and the use of multiple transport modes to give a true door to door service has benefited many trades, especially in manufactured goods.
Fierce competition in the major container routes has reduced freights in real terms and encouraged efficiency. Establishing an integrated container service requires a very heavy capital investment in specialized ships, berth facilities, terminals and depots, handling equipment, road, rail and waterway connections, and of course the containers themselves.
As a result, such services from the very outset involved deep-sea container vessels trading between major terminals with smaller container feeder vessels linking these with smaller ports and terminals in the area. This hub and spoke system has developed to the stage where container transit times are now very fast and reliable. There are now very few parts of the world from which door-to-door container services cannot be offered.