If you take a walk on the Elbe in Hamburg on the right days, you will see one of the so-called megaboxers, a container ship with space for 20,000 containers.
Despite the significantly lower number of large cargo ships approaching the port in the past Corona year, their share has increased by seven percent.
These giants with a length of 400 meters already make up around a third of the arrivals of large container ships in the port of Hamburg.
More of these will be seen in the years to come - and these ships will get even bigger.
The shipping alliance Ocean Network Express (One) from Japan has just announced the deployment of the world's next largest container ships.
Consortium One has ordered six so-called Ultra Large Container Ships with a storage capacity of more than 24,000 TEU from the leasing company Shoei Kisen Kaisha.
TEU stands for “Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit”, ie 20-foot (6.1 m) long standard containers.
So far, this alliance only has ships with space for 14,000 TEU.
A few days before that, Hapag-Lloyd had also placed an order for six large ships with the South Korean shipyard Daewoo Shipbuilding.
The shipping company from Hamburg mentions one billion dollars (823 million euros) as the investment sum for the ships with a capacity of 23,500 TEU.
A typical price for a single giant ship is around 140 million euros.
Sea transport is becoming more and more important
A trend is emerging in shipping that is of great importance for supplying the world with goods.
After all, around 90 percent of world trade is carried out by sea, which is four times as much as in 1970.
In the past, however, the shipping companies ordered fewer cargo ships from year to year.
The number of orders fell by ten percent in 2019, in 2020 the decline was particularly high at 50 percent - more than it has been in two decades, as the London-based institute IHS Markit writes.
But now the wind seems to be turning, because some shipping companies are again spending a lot of money on new buildings.
One reason for this is a finding from the months of the corona pandemic.
“The volume of transport has not decreased as much as it was initially expected,” says Claus Brandt in an interview with WELT.
The former shipping expert from Pricewaterhouse Coopers has been managing director of the German Maritime Center in Hamburg since last summer.
At the moment, shipping space is so scarce that record prices can be achieved with container transport.
Source: WORLD infographic
According to the Shanghai Containerized Freight Index, transportation in Asia-Europe was 190 percent more expensive in 2020.
The spot rate for container spaces booked spontaneously and not far in advance rose by as much as 300 percent to $ 4,091 at the end of the year.
The shipping service The Loadstar reports that freight forwarders had to pay twice as much for a shipment in January.
In addition to tight capacities, problems are also caused by bottlenecks in the ports, traffic jams, delays and a lack of empty containers and trucks for transport.
Online trading supports the trend
The trigger is the buying behavior of households in the corona pandemic with the closings of shops.
Instead, customers order furniture, camping equipment or do-it-yourself and sporting goods in online shops - and these are often supplied by a manufacturer from Asia.
“There is currently no free capacity.
Shipping companies even postpone scrapping and order new ships, ”writes the shipping service G-Captain.
But despite these short-term tariff records, freight prices have not yet returned to the level from before the Lehman Bank's financial crisis in 2008.
Noticeably often it is now about ships in new dimensions.
With an average lifespan of 20 years for these cargo ships, this also means that the companies expect that they will be able to fill such sizes with cargo in the long term.
Experts even expect this trend to continue.
“Technically, even larger container ships are possible and economically they offer shipping companies advantages.
That's why many liner shipping companies order large ships, ”says Brandt.
The location for this shipbuilding has become Asian: South Korea, Japan and China dominate the construction of cargo ships.
But this same shipbuilding is subject to very special laws.
Large ships have barely grown in length for years.
As early as 2006, the world's largest shipping company Maersk put a container ship for a maximum of 18,200 TEU with a length of almost 400 meters into service.
"An extension is possible, but then the engineers slowly reach their limits with the thickness of the steel," says Jan-Olaf Probst, Director of Strategic Ship Development at DNV-GL in Hamburg.
With such dimensions, the steel wall must have a thickness of more than 100 millimeters.
The Norwegian-German technology company is the world's largest ship certifier, regularly reviews safety and permits ships to sail.
But other size details relevant to the load-bearing capacity have changed since then.
Shipyards in Asia then built ship types with higher side walls and they also raised the ship bridge by three meters.
Building is high
"A higher deckhouse optimizes the line of sight and allows an additional layer of containers," says Probst.
What is meant is the captain's unobstructed view of the bridge over the water in front of the ship's bow.
With all these changes combined, the ship designers finally created space for an additional 3,300 containers in 2017.
With that the proud number of 21,500 TEU was reached.
Since then the length of the ships has remained, but now they are getting wider.
The currently largest container ship that is already sailing the oceans measures a huge almost 62 meters between the side walls and has a side height of 33 meters.
Up to 23,500 containers fit on the record holder, the "HMM Algeciras" of the MSC shipping company from Switzerland.
In two years' time, however, when the One consortium's newbuildings from Imabari Shipbuilding and Japan Marine United Corporation are delivered, they will be the world's largest cargo ships.
The Japanese engineers are changing the structure of the hull for the 24,000 TEU giants.
"The steady increase in parking space shows how much room there is still in the optimization," says Probst.
Expert Probst does not see the limits of engineering skill and feasibility.
Rather, the area of application on the seas sets the limit for the time being.
Shipping companies currently allow these giant ships to commute exclusively between Asia and Europe and pass the bottleneck on the shortest sea route.
Suez Canal sets the limit
“The Suez Canal is the restriction and it ensures that growth stops or only turns out to be minimal,” says Probst.
Maneuverability is decisive for the use of the ships, and this is limited in the canal by the width and draft.
Its passage therefore costs a lot of money: the shipping companies pay the Egyptian authorities up to half a million dollars for a single trip through this artificial waterway.
From the point of view of the shipowner, the economic viability speaks for the use of ever larger ships.
“The costs of ship operation do not increase linearly with the size of the container ship,” says expert Brandt from the Maritime Center.
For example, the cost of personnel and energy does not increase analogously for larger ship units.
The importance of the Suez Canal for shipping
The Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea.
Including all access channels, it is 193 kilometers long.
Since an expansion in 2015, it can be used in both directions at the same time.
Depending on the type of ship, the wages of the seafarers account for up to 30 percent of the operating costs.
After fuel, personnel costs are the largest cost item for a shipping company - even if the number of crews continues to decrease.
Whereas the largest container ships went on long journeys in the 1990s with a crew of around 40 seafarers, today there are only around 20 seafarers, and that with ships twice as large.
But the main economies of scale are energy savings.
"If a shipowner replaces two 10,000 TEU ships with one 20,000 TEU ship, the company saves the equivalent of the fuel required to transport 5,000 containers," says Manager Probst.
At full capacity, this means a cost advantage of 25 percent.
Shipping is becoming more efficient
This comparison shows how pronounced the trend towards the size of ships is: In the past decade, the global fleet of around 5,200 container ships has remained almost unchanged in number.
But while around 150 million containers were shipped with it in 2013, this was already 200 million boxes in 2019.
"Transporting more cargo with the same number of ships also means that energy consumption and emissions per container have fallen significantly," says shipbuilding engineer Probst.
That shows how efficiently the shipping industry works.
The seaports also have to adapt to the growth of mega-ships.
Because external factors such as water depths or the capacity of the handling facilities and port logistics were limiting factors for a long time.
“Years ago, large ships could not be handled in all relevant ports,” says shipping expert Brandt.
In the past decade, however, investments have been made in port locations around the world.
This applies to Europe with Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg or Bremerhaven as well as Asia with Shanghai, Hong Kong or Singapore and the USA with Los Angeles or New York - and thus all major destinations for global ship transport.
As modern as the construction of the new giant ships may be, their propulsion system is often still as conventional.
The new container ships of the Japanese consortium One will be powered by conventional combustion engines that use different types of bunker oil or diesel fuel.
According to the Drewry Maritime Services shipping database, only twelve percent of the ships currently ordered have alternative propulsion concepts such as the use of liquefied natural gas (LNG), ammonium or methanol.
Research is also being carried out into hydrogen as an energy source or into electric drives.
According to these experts, however, it will be at least a decade before such advanced and low-emission drive technology will be used.