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Aboard a Cargo Colossus: Maersk’s New Container Ships (nytimes.com)
135 points by mhb on Oct 3, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 97 comments

"Maersk, based in Copenhagen, ordered 20 Triple-E’s from Daewoo of South Korea in 2011"

I got the rare opportunity to tour the DSME (Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering) yard in Okpo Bay, Geoje-Do South Korea a few years ago. I think it's the second largest shipyard in the world. It was really an unbelievable experience. Container ships are huge when they're in the water, but they're absolutely mind bogglingly immense in drydock, where individual sections dwarf most apartment buildings.

The range of ships they produce there is also rather mindblowing, in my tour I saw (in various stages of assembly) container ships, LPG transport vessels, crude oil ships, various navy ships and a handful of submarines among others.

The engineering going on is also fairly cutting edge. Problems like accurately predicting weld strength are still unsolved and they had a large computational modelling R&D programs I got a glimpse of while I was there.

If you squinted a bit, it almost felt like huge starships were being assembled there.


Down the street (more or less), in Gohyeon, is another huge shipyard which I think Samsung Heavy Industries runs.

> If you squinted a bit, it almost felt like huge starships were being assembled there.

An interesting note when you consider triple Es would just sit in the middle of the medium starship comparison chart[0], or at the very bottom of the large chart[1] next to borg scout vessels

[0] http://www.st-minutiae.com/misc/comparison/comparison_medium...

[1] http://www.st-minutiae.com/misc/comparison/comparison_large....

The media in this article is frustrating. The lead of this story is the incredible size of these container ships, but no photos, and no parts of the video, show the ship side-by-side anything which gives us a sense of scale.

It's all very well showing a diagram of the Empire State Building stood on its side, but I would have loved to see even a single photo or 1 second of video where it was moving slowly past a landmark. Or even a long-shot of the harbor as it came out of port. Nope. All artistic "through the porthole" or other strange angles which never capture the whole ship.

Anyone got a resource which actually shows the ship in a setting which gives it some sense of scale, instead of, like this article, leaving all of that to the imagination?

Maersk actually has a pretty solid instagram account where they post those kinds of pictures.


Heh, heh. Lego minifigure comparison (although probably not a TripleE): http://instagram.com/p/q_yDmLiL1F/

Those are 40' containers if that helps. So you could fit a couple large high-school football stadiums end to end and still have room for the stands and concessions.

EDIT: Just looked it up. I was way off. Over 4 HS football stadiums (including stands) end to end. Just 8' shy of a quarter-mile in length. And about the height of a 4 story building.

>Anyone got a resource which actually shows the ship in a setting which gives it some sense of scale, instead of, like this article, leaving all of that to the imagination?

Not a direct answer, but:

On a whim, I put the question "what is the size of a container ship" to Wolfram Alpha, but got a reply that only had the definition of a container ship, and a message "computation time exceeded." :-)

Also googled for the same question; first few links were about the size of shipping containers instead, and there was also a link to the same NY Times articlethat this thread is about.

There are some comments downthread about how new technologies (3d printing etc) might disrupt international shipping. I think that they are grossly underestimating just how cheap sea freight actually is.

Sending a 20ft container on a typical China to Western Europe route costs about $1400. The journey by sea adds less than one cent to the wholesale cost of a small plastic widget, or about $1.50 to the cost of a desktop PC. There isn't a particularly great environmental footprint either - fuel is the biggest single cost in shipping, so low costs depend on astonishing levels of fuel efficiency.

Shipping is so cheap that all sorts of superficially absurd business practices make economic sense. Some British companies send locally-caught seafood to Thailand for processing, then ship it back to the UK to be sold domestically. It takes only a relatively small difference in labour costs to offset the cost of shipping.

"The Triple-E’s were built for $190 million a ship"

The list price for the 777-300ER is $320.2 million [1].

Incredible! 1: http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/03/30/why-...

9,000 40' containers, enough to carry parts for a whole bunch of 777's :-). I was browsing http://www.buzzfeed.com/kristinchirico/surprisingly-gorgeous... and thought, "Wow, one of those Maersk ships could be like a whole village."

The logistics though are still a problem. When one of them docks it dumps a lot of containers into the network which causes congestion exactly like packets in a network as this article http://www.citylab.com/work/2014/10/a-complete-guide-to-the-... points out.

True. IN my life the local big port has gone from not having a rail head, to having a rail head, to having a "port rail facility", and through several upgrades to that facility.

Would that mean the primary costs for a 777 aren't materials?

pretty much. every single thing used to make a plane has to pass a shitload of tests, that is what adds the cost. I think it costs about a million dollars to test the wing of a plane like a 747, one wing.

One of the wing tests:


"This Boeing 777 wing was tested to destruction, finally breaking at one fifty four percent (154%) of the designed limit load."

i'm not sure you could make that arguement since they don't use the same materials. container ships are mostly steel while airplanes are a mix of aluminum, cabron fiber and titanium

The majority of the 787 Dreamliner is carbon fiber for weight reduction.

The Dreamliner is the 787.

Thank you! I corrected my typo.

I doubt materials are the primary cost for most manufactured goods.

That said, some materials (carbon fiber composite) are expensive per gram than others (steel).

Triple-Es don't have to fly. Key difference.

A fascinating book about the history of container shipping is http://www.amazon.com/Box-Shipping-Container-Smaller-Economy...

Great book and it also very much speaks to how, for example, processes and regulations/contracts may need to change in order for a new technology to be used effectively. Most people don't appreciate the degree to which containers underpin the globalization of manufacturing (for better or worse).

It's amazing to think about the scale of these shipping operations. 70% of the world's freight is still moved by Ocean, you really take it for granted the journey products sometimes make before reaching your hands.

More concerningly, I'd venture 70% of freight travels in a 5 seater SUV with a single person at the wheel.

Then let's just dig a canal and have the container ship deliver it to our houses, you would eliminate rail, truck and consumer transport costs!

I would estimate 100% of people buy and transport food, and I can guarantee almost 100% would kill you rather than stop.

Making asinine comments is asinine. You might find it concerning that people use automobiles to get "freight" to their homes, but I find it quite reassuring. I for one don't want to be around when they stop.

With today's commodity-scale solar panels, is there enough non-container surface area on a Triple-E to reduce the fuel usage by 1% with a solar electric drive that assists the fuel-based engines?

Supposedly, container ships will be moving to CNG/LNG for fuel when they move to fully autonomous operations, as propulsion systems using natural gas as a fuel require substantially lower maintenance than current bunker fuel propulsion systems. While not renewable like solar or wind, running these ships on CNG/LNG would be much, much cleaner than the fuel they're currently running on.

There is almost no non-container space deck space. Take a look at how they designed the superstructure where the crew lives, it is super narrow, full width, and obviously full height.

You might have better luck on an oil tanker or car carrier.

They could make special containers with solar panels integrated into their roofs (and place them carefully on top of course), and find a way to route cables cheaply. Given solars area power density, I'd guess completely uneconomical.

I think wind power makes more sense.


And right now ports like Long Beach can't deal with the incoming container traffic. Currently, it's a struggle for a trucker to find a chassis now.

These huge ships can create huge variations in the total TEU (twenty foot equivalent units) coming in at any given time. Containers can get lost under incoming containers for days/weeks because the port is playing Jenga.

I guess my point is that someone has to figure out the destination side logistics that will arise with ever increasing amounts delivered all at once.

Check out Rotterdam. Ground container handling is done with robot vehicles.

And a mountain of software to route, reroute, stack and unstack all to ensure minimum time spent in the port for a full container.

Obligatory info for amalgamated AIS tracking for ships:

marinetraffic.com vesselfinder.com

Quite useful. Most ocean carriers, Maersk included, have horrible tracking of their shipments. No API, outdated and buggy IE4-ish sites, and inconsistent info. (I've used Selenium to web scrape data from ocean carriers before.)

Probably the most modern I've seen is Hapag-Lloyd, and they provide a email interface with a turnaround time of 5 minutes - then you can just scrape the results.

Ocean Carriers have the 1970s - '80s version of an API. EDI messages. If you do business with an ocean carrier you can receive an EDI feed when a shipment or a specific container hits certain milestones in the transportation process.

I worked at an investment bank for a while in a commodities department that dealt with physical commodities. Using those websites and Solarc/Openlink RightAngle [1] we could actually find one of our containers full of oil delivering into Singapore. Kind of cool.

[1] http://www.olf.com/software/products/RightAngle.html

If you ever had a Bloomberg, we let you map all the worldwide shipping traffic in realtime and dive into ships/cargo in the BMAP function. Almost exclusively used by commodities desks like the one you were probably at :)

The sites you listed just do AIS tracking, right?

You imply there is a way to get shipping information? How does that work?

It doesn't. Once you know it's loaded all you care about it whether the boat is coming in. so you're going to still have to track the container until it's actually on the boat.

<CTRL+F> Baltic Dry -- No returns.

What depresses me about this forum is not one of you knows the relationship between the technology of the market (these wunderkind ships) and the market itself.

The Baltic Dry index crashed, hard, in 2008[1]. (There are many reasons for this apart from the global economic crash - a lot of over-production, a lot of ships coming off-line but with replacements that needed extended loans that were put into question by the crash, extremely dodgy business practices in Greece and so on). It had a terrible year in 2012[2]. And 2014 doesn't look much better[3].

I'd urge you to look at the figures, then work out just how well global trade is doing. Hint: paper over cracks.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_Dry_Index [2]http://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2012/feb/... [3]http://www.bloomberg.com/quote/BDIY:IND

For more information about container shipping I highly recommend this omega tau podcast episode: http://omegataupodcast.net/2014/04/146-container-shipping/

This time last year Lego announced a Triple E kit: http://gcaptain.com/lego-unveils-maersk-line-triple-e-block-...

I once went to see Maersk's largest vessel in the Copenhagen harbor. After driving up and down the docks for some time without being able to find the ship, I realized I was driving next to it.

How about a disposable combat drone launcher system built into a standard cargo container? The device could remain inert until needed, but be activated on request from the crew. If the movie Captain Phillips accurately portrayed the piracy threat, then several smaller drones might be able to act as a deterrent. (Particularly if a TrackingPoint like weapon were incorporated.)

Requiring at least one crew member trained in its use and putting a portable military-grade weapons system on every container ship.

A small crew of armed marines or mercenaries and perhaps some heavier stuff built into the ship would also work. The answer is though that it's not economically sensible today. (Which is actually a good thing because it means piracy is not that huge a problem in the scheme of things.)

Requiring at least one crew member trained in its use

Just plain false. Reading comprehension? I stated that the crew would have to make a request to have it launched. It could be remotely piloted by a US military organization or similar.

putting a portable military-grade weapons system on every container ship.

Remove the ability for the crew to operate it, and this ceases to be an insurmountable problem.

A small crew of armed marines or mercenaries and perhaps some heavier stuff built into the ship would also work.

And be much more expensive. My solution just required an extra half container be loaded and offloaded, plus routine inspection and maintenance. Mercenaries would entail big salaries, which was the whole point of my suggestion.

Sounds more expensive than the ransom.

You could probably have these mass produced for 100's of thousands. You wouldn't even need to put them on all ships. Just put them on a large fraction of them. I think the stock could be operated for less expense than a few ransoms of a large ship.

Being Polish and having been multiple times to Gdansk I'm pretty surprised such a huge ship can even dock there. Good to know Poland can actually receive goods straight from SE Asia without reloading. On the other hand it doesn't explain how the same electronic equipment (and other luxury goods) is nearly always cheaper in Germany and sometimes even in the UK.

Logistics is only part of the costs. All those electronics are even more expensive in China, where they are often actually made! Taxes, retail overhead, and competition play a much bigger role in the actual price you pay.

I wonder why US ports are too small? Anyone know?

Also curious that the Suez canal is wider than the Panama?

It just means that the waterways are currently too narrow or too shallow for such increasingly massive ships, either naturally or because the deepening simply hasn't caught up to the increasing size of cargo vessels. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is involved with many port dredging projects to make the navigable waterways deeper and wider.[1] There has always been an iterative relationship between size/draft of ships and width/depth of waterways -- in fact, the size of many ships the world over is constrained for practical purposes by the size of the Panama Canal.[2]

The US government has been improving ports since its early days. In fact, the expenditure of federal funds on "internal improvements" such as port improvements was quite the contentious issue in the early republic.[3] But most of the world's trade moves by sea, and the US is and always has been a maritime nation.[4] The ROI for port improvements is laughably high, so it has always been a no-brainer.

[1] http://dqm.usace.army.mil/Education/Index.aspx

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panamax

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internal_improvements

[4] http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/geopolitics-united-states-p...

The largest cargo ships are now built against the constraints of the Suez Canal (based on its draft and a bridge on the route), as the Panama canal constraints are much more limiting.



Sure, but many of the ships out there today were not built so recently.

The Suez is sea level, so there are no locks.

Panama is working on a new set of locks and other expansions (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panama_Canal_expansion_projec...) that will allow for post-Panamax ships.

There's also going the be a new competing canal in Nicaragua to be started in December this year.


Not for triple Es though, new panamax is 366m length, 49m beam and 15.2m draft.

Triple Es are 400m long and 59m wide, though their draft fits hair-tight (14.5m)

Cranes, ports in the Americas don't have cranes with the reach to unload the wide ship. Some EU and Asian cranes had to be replaced and their teams retrained, but US port technology lags significantly behind Europe's and Asia's. The two unions representing dockworkers have fought to minimize automation which means more time in port which makes it less attractive to the ship companies. Progress is being though made and hopefully US can catch up in the next few years.

Do they have any issues with pirates sailing that close to Somalia?

Height above water is 73m which I would imagine would make it a real challenge to scale....

[0] http://www.gizmag.com/triple-e-maersk-worlds-largest-ship/17...

For those who haven't watched it, Captain Phillips is a great movie to understand a bit more about sea piracy.


If they go through the Straits of Hormuz, definitely.


I think the question was more about whether this specific type of ship (triple E) better protects them against pirate attacks.

I was wondering the same thing (if they engineered the ship differently to better stop pirate attacks).

It appears from the pictures that the crew has access to every single cargo container during the voyage? I wonder why that would be necessary?

Leakage, customs, national security issues, etc. If the government of a country says they need to inspect a specific cargo container or you can't come into port, it's easier to make that possible at sea rather than having to steam elsewhere and completely unload, especially since you'd likely have to refuel en route and it would be a very long trip due to the rareness of ports capable of handling such ships.

Hazmat leakage that needs tending to?

Are ships still required to have stand-alone radios (VHF/UHF/HF) at sea? I know most of them use satellite comms now.

Yes, every ship is required to keep a watch on VHF channel 16.

The captain of a boat I crew for says this is rarely enforced. Often requests are not responded to, or if they are, the crew member monitoring the radio doesn't speak English.

another area ripe for disruption. Imagine in 100 years when 3d printing is a mature technology, and most goods are produced locally and delivered by drone. Maybe only raw materials will be transported this way?


It's extremely difficult to imagine a world in which distributed, unspecialized manufacturing is actually a reasonable way for most people to get their goods.

One argument many people have made is look at the personal computing revolution, shouldn't we see the same thing in physical manufacturing?

And the answer is: yes, we will the same thing. But look at what is actually happening: you have a brief 20-30 year period in which distributed personal computing actually happens, but then once the internet comes about things have slowly started migrating back to centralization and specialization (ie: Facebook instead of distributed social networking).

I expect the same will happen with 3d printing. Sure, 3d printing might be the best way to print that obscure part you need for an old car. But for every day items? Unlikely that the efficiency gain made by getting rid of shipping is actually offset by printing something in your house on demand.

In the case of manufacturing physical objects, there are also good reasons why the specialized factory can produce higher-quality products than a 3D printer can. For one, in an ocean of materials with various relative strengths and weaknesses 3D printers only work with a handful of polymers.

I think it'll work out like on-demand printing. That laser printer in your office is fine for printing out a one-off contract. But when the time comes to restock your company's collection of brochures, it's probably best to send out to have them printed on high-volume equipment that can do a better job of it.

I think the nature of everyday items would have to change for 3D printing to compete. For example, imagine a technology that scans your body in 3D and then makes that shirt you like, but with its dimensions customized to the dimensions of your body.

Clothing sizes today are a messy approximation of what people actually want. It's a compromise between the ROI possible in a mass-production, mass-transport world, and the perfect fit.

News and music used to be produced and distributed like clothes--centralized production of a limited number of product options, which are then shipped to lots of people. Today people can completely customize their news and music consumption through a wide variety of dynamically personalized channels.

Personal manufacturing can do the same thing for tangible goods. But the current "3D printing" technology, which is extremely limited in terms of materials, size, durability, etc.

The point is that it is unlikely that machine would exist in your house. You'll still get clothing from the same company, shipped or in store, they'll just manufacture it differently. This is a big deal, but again, it's unlikely that the means of production will distribute because of simple efficiency gains through specialization.

Even if you go full science fiction and have a machine that perfectly rearranges the atoms and you can buy specific atoms (a la Diamond Age), the guy who has a deal on bulk atoms needed to make a shirt will make it cheaper than you will make it in your kitchen on your maker.

Eh, I'm not sure. Even with completely local production (if that miracle ever happens), you still need raw materials, and moving a lot at once is very cost effective. Just like trains beat busses beat cars on total cost per unit moved.

Maersk's (and other similar companies') big idea was that if you put things in regularly sized containers, you can a) Calculate space very easily and use space efficiently b) Not worry about packing things at the dock and let the customer best pack the thing as opposed to you wasting time on it c) Use the same container to move the goods across ground too d)Reuse the container. So this was kinda IKEA flat packing before IKEA existed.

It really is hard to beat the economies of scale here - even the largest cargo planes move laughably small amounts compared to these things. Drones? No way.

Drone, I think, could disrupt something else, which is house delivery. Small weight, short distance. That's what it'd be good at.

3D printing isn't magic, it's just a technique. What will be more important is fully automated manufacturing and configurable manufacturing. 3D printing is just the easiest form of such technology. In, say, 50 years you'll be able to upload a design for something to a service and have a factory produce it with little human intervention and very little delay. But it won't be manufactured using solely 3D printing techniques, there'll be "traditional" machining, casting, assembly, soldering, etc. involved, it'll just all be automated.

Marine shipping in cargo containers is frighteningly efficient. In 2002, the cost was $0.001 per mile per ton[0] Good luck beating that price with a drone. It'll cost more in electricity to fly a drone-package across town than to move a cargo container across the ocean.

[0] http://richardtorian.blogspot.com/2012/01/cost-per-ton-mile-...

There are some strong indications that the boom in manufacturing in China is not permanent. With the decline in the importance of labor, the rise of robots, and the importance of protecting IP in manufacturing, Byrnjolfsson and McAfee suggest that much of manufacturing will be coming home over the next few decades.


So ripe for disruption... in a hundred years?

$210B industry per the article.

I was responding to the idea that disruption would occur by means of drones and 3D printing. (I agree that for small amounts of materials, this might someday be the case, but currently, this is obviously not a "ripe," disruptive alternative.) You simply cannot beat the efficiency of this mode of transport for large amounts of material.

If you want to disrupt this industry, a completely different mode of transport would have to be invented. Good luck building your teleporters or your ocean-length, frictionless rail lines, everyone!

over the next 100 years was my posit

I think the equivalent of replicators are still far-off. We'll have drone ships loading and unloading themselves far sooner than we'll have people getting whatever their hearts desire from a little machine in their home from pure carbon pellets.

That said, "Tea, earl gray, hot."....someday.

This is still the expansion phase of the previous disruption, shipping containers, that's not finished yet.

Anyone knows if people are studying things like elon musk's hyperloop to revolutionnize goods transport ?

Studying a hypothetical high-speed train given that no existing high-speed trains are used primarily for freight? (And that air freight is widely used.) I doubt it. High-value goods can already be delivered quickly and low-value goods can be delivered quite inexpensively. Container ships have, in fact, revolutionized goods transport.

i would have compared hyperloop more to something like pipelines than trains..

A pipeline is pretty much the complete opposite of what you'd want to ship discrete goods. Pipelines work well for fluids because they're a homogenous liquid that have to be loaded and unloaded in discrete chunks to ship by train. With discrete goods on the other hand, the whole virtue of containers is that their content don't need to be loaded or unloaded to be inserted into a transportation system. And if a "pipeline" could take an entire preloaded container in some form? Well, we're back to something that looks and acts basically like a high-speed train.

Except a train is using rails. Because hyperloop containers are in a sort of vacuum, they have extremely low friction.

Ships still consume oil, and whenever one of those super cargo crash in the ocean, it's an environmental nightmare. And even when they don't, they're still polluting a lot ( i know, not that much compared to other means and the amount of goods they carry).

There's probably still a way to carry goods from china to europe in a more environment friendly way...

> There's probably still a way to carry goods from china to europe in a more environment friendly way...

Maybe a modern unmanned sailing ship would fit.

There have been various attempts to reduce fuel consumption by using sails, e.g. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/28/science/earth/cargo-ship-d...

It probably gets less useful as ships get bigger though and there's a long history of trying this sort of thing without a whole lot of success. Modern systems do have better automation however.

The most important metric in this type of transport is efficiency (i.e., mass delivered / energy consumed), not speed. I can't imagine anything more efficient than cargo ships in this case.

At scale, mass tends to be less critical than bulk, and bulk is the primary unit of containerized shipping. Density, tends to correlate to efficient transport.

The cargo container did revolutionize goods transport: http://nautil.us/issue/3/in-transit/the-box-that-built-the-m...

From the article:

> Circling the world four or five times a year, it can move 1.4 million tons of cargo annually. That’s the equivalent of 1.8 billion iPads.

Such a strange comparison.

Not when the writer is secretly on Apple's payroll. /s

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