In 50 years, containerships will operate autonomously and will be nearly three times the size of the largest current vessels. There may only be three or four major liner companies, and they will operate either as digitally enabled independents or as small units of tech giants. Freight forwarding as a stand-alone business will become extinct, because digital interactions will reduce the need for intermediaries to manage logistics services among multiple stakeholders. Customers, whether they seek deep relationships with carriers or just the lowest rates in transactional form, will take service transparency and reliability as a given.
Those are the some of the projections to come out of a study released last week by consultancy McKinsey & Co. on how the global liner industry, today one of the world's most technologically hidebound businesses, can re-invent itself for the digital age. The authors, Steve Saxon and Matt Stone, framed their findings with a historical perspective: In 1967, McKinsey was commissioned by the British Transport Docks Board to assess the impact of seagoing containers, which had been developed in the U.S. a decade earlier. The first ships expressly designed to transport this equipment had just been launched, and McKinsey advised its client—with great prescience—that containerization would forever transform the economics of ocean shipping.
Looking out to 2067, Saxon and Stone foresee ships with a capacity of 50,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) containers plying the seas, perhaps alongside modular, drone-like floating containers. 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, they said.
Container volumes will be two to five times present-day levels, but the trade lanes will dramatically change, the authors contend. Short-haul intraregional traffic will increase as converging global incomes, automation, and robotics disperse manufacturing footprints, they said. Successful companies will be closely connected through data ecosystems, and will have fully digitized customer interactions and operating systems, Saxon and Stone forecast.
The authors acknowledge that secular changes in consumer behavior—notably a desire to favor consumption of services over goods—mean that global trade growth will not significantly outpace global GDP as it has for decades. However, as long as global economies seek growth, there will be always be stuff available to fill the boxes, they said.
"Economic growth goes hand in hand with specialization, which in turn promotes further trade," they wrote. "So long as underlying economic growth is positive, trade, too, is likely to grow, even if the multiplier (the multiple of container trade growth over GDP growth) is less than one."
The real impact of these changes, the authors contend, may be to shorten the distance between trading partners, thereby limiting the growth of long-distance international trade.
The McKinsey report is titled "Container shipping: The next 50 years." Download the PDF document.