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Supply Chain 5 min read

Tackling increased shipping container losses with location technology

Two trucks prepare to be loaded with shipping containers at a port.

The maritime industry is facing a critical issue. In recent years, the number of shipping containers lost to the deep waters of oceans has consistently been on the rise.

Since November 2020, according to the World Shipping Council, lost shipping containers more than doubled when compared to the previous decade. And considering that an estimated 80% of all goods travel by sea (as listed by Statista), the need for solutions is becoming quite urgent.

But what makes a shipping container disappear?

Several factors are to blame. While at sea, the main reasons carrier ships lose their cargo are rough waters and a natural phenomenon called “parametric rolling" which causes ships to experience dynamic instability and roll to extreme angles of up to 30-40 degrees. The vessel rolls back and forth provoked by a stressed motion that changes the shape of the waves. This effect often produces sudden and violent rolling that can significantly damage the vessel's stability.

The incident can be particularly severe in container vessels, as the height of their cargo increases the effects of parametric rolling. This is a direct result of a surge the industry has experienced in American container imports. Increased traffic on the seas often triggers accidents that pollute the waters and waste both products and resources.

Leaving shipping containers floating in the sea also creates a navigation risk for smaller ships. And in cases when these ships contain dangerous cargo or polluting products such as plastic pellets, the risk is even higher. Given that shipping containers are heavy and not fully water-tight, retrieving the cargo once it sinks to the ocean floor is virtually impossible.

Ships carrying heavy cargo such as cars and other heavy machinery are exceptionally fast sinkers. This is another factor contributing to the increase in lost containers. A full container ship can be as long as four football fields and can carry up to 24,000 twenty-foot-long shipping containers stacked five or six high. With such large volumes of cargo, accidents are more likely and even a small event can lead to serious container losses.

And the list of challenges doesn't stop there. The growing demand for shipping containers in recent years has also forced the industry to continue using exhausted, older containers with defects and corroded locking mechanisms. Add potentially overworked crew members on top of all that and the likelihood of accidents such as stack collapses becomes much higher.

Good to know

  • At any given time, approximately 6,000 container ships are moving the world's trade across the oceans.
  • Containers falling from smaller vessels or barges can often be recovered prior to full submersion, but containers tumbling from huge ocean “boxships" sink almost immediately.
  • Until the pandemic in 2020, container accidents were decreasing. With the rise in demand for imported goods from US consumers, accidents are a lot more common. In addition to the wasted products, materials, and resources, and certainly not least, the irreversible and immense water pollution, the consequences of the US export boom also mean a shortage of empty containers.
Bangkok Port HERE Directions 2022

How location technology can help

Despite the long list of challenges and risks shipping containers are facing daily, there is also good news. Logistics technology designed to combat these challenges and ensure supply chain optimization is already available and includes solutions that enable more resilience in supply chain planning.

HERE Routing and HERE Positioning, for example, are services that use location technology to help optimize shipment tracking and improve asset distribution.

HERE Routing provides efficient real-time routing, AI-powered traffic prediction and custom fleet management across various transportation modes globally. These features support routing schedules optimization, increased operational efficiency and reduced fuel consumption and costs. This enables the shipping industry to deliver goods to customers with more speed, accuracy and reliability.

HERE Positioning is another location-based service that uses a combination of GPS, Wi-Fi and cellular networks to accurately determine the position and movement of assets. Its features include real-time location tracking, accurate road and lane-level location data and fleet management capabilities that facilitate more efficient routing and faster deliveries.


More efficiency and safety, less pollution

Location technology provides insights that help track and distribute goods across oceans, but it also helps identify when containers are ready to be returned. This reduces waste and increases efficiency. Tracking can also alleviate the need for emergency reserves during peak periods, creating a steady and reliable flow of goods and reducing the environmental footprint.

Shipping container tracking and supply chain optimization through logistics technology are pivotal to increased efficiency and safety across the global trade industry. With the use of logistics technologies such as HERE Routing and HERE Positioning, as well as implementing AI and machine learning, the shipping industry can deliver goods efficiently and safely while increasing the sustainability of the industry and the safety of its people.

Maja Stefanovic

Maja Stefanovic

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