Container standardization

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I recently finished Marc Levinson's The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. It's all very interesting, but I particularly enjoyed Chapter 7, which describes the process of standardization. The basic problem was that all the pioneers had developed containers with different dimensions and fittings.

The process should be familiar to anyone who's worked in network standards, complete with multiple standards bodies:

These concerns were unrepresented when Marad's two export committees held their first meetings on successive days in November 1958. Neither Pan-Atlantic nor Matson was seeking government construction subsidies, so the only two companies actually operating containerships in 1958 were not invited to join in the process of setting standards for the industry they were creating.

Controversy arose almost immediately. After much debate, the dimension committee agreed to define a "family" of acceptable container sizes, not just a single size. It voted unanimously that 8 feet should be the standard width, despite the fact that some European railroads could not carry loads wider than 7 feet; the committee would "have to be guided mainly by domestic requirements, with the hope that foreign practice would gradually conform to our standards." Then the committee took up container heights. Some maritime industry representatives favored containers 8 feet tall. Trucking industry officials, who were observers without a vote, argued that 8 1/2-foot-tall boxes would let customers squeeze more cargo into each container and allow room for forklifts to work inside. The committee finally agreed that containers should be no more than 8 1/2 feet high but could be less. Length was a tougher issue still. The diversity of containers in use or on order presented a serious operational problem: while a short container could be stacked atop a longer one, its weight would not rest upon the longer one's loadbearing steel corner posts. To support a shorter container above, the bottom container wold not rest upon the longer one's load-bearing steel corner posts. To support a shorter container above, the bottom container would require either steel posts along its sides or thick, load-bearing walls. More posts or thicker walls, though would increase weight and reduce interior space, making the container more costly to use. The length question was deferred.


The [ANSI] MH-5 subcommittees, involving many of the same participants, went to work on the same issues. The MH-5 subcommittee on dimensions quickly reached a consensus that all pairs of lengths in use or about to be used—12 and 24 feet, 17 and 35 feet, 20 and 40 feet—would be considered "standard." The subcommittee rejected only a proposal to endorse 10-foot containers, because members thought them too small to be efficient, and, in any case, none were planned.

The MH-5 process was dominated by trailer manufacturers, truck lines, and railroads. These interests wanted to reach a decision on container sizes quickly, because once standard dimensions were approved, the domestic use of containers was expected to burgeon. The specifics mattered less: within the limits set by state laws, trucks and railroads could accomodate almost any length and weight. The maritime interests that were influential in the Marad committees, in contrast, cared greatly about the specifics. A ship built with cells for 27-foot containers could not easily be redesigned to carry 35-foot containers.


Meanwhile, yet another player entered the standards business. The National Defense Transportation Association, representing companies that handled military cargo, decided that it too would study container dimensions. ... By late summer of 1959 it had agreed unanimously that "standard" containers would be 20 feet or 40 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8 feet high. The other lengths approved by the MH-5 and Marad committees, and the 8 1/2-foot-high boxes supported by some truckers and most ship lines, would not be acceptable for military freight—a decision Forgash's committee was able to reach only because no one from the maritime industry was involved.


The wrangling over container sizes, which had consumed three years in the United States, was now repeated at the international level. By 1962, much of Europe was allowing larger sizes than was America, so the new American standard sizes, 8 feet high, 8 feet wide, and 10, 20, 30, or 40 feet long [Marad changed it's mind--EKR], faced no technical obstacles. Economic interests were another story. Many continental European railroads owned fleets of much smaller containers, made for 8 or 10 cubic meters of freight rather than the 72.5 cubic meter volume of a 40-foot container. The Europeans wanted their containers recognized as standard. The British, Japanese, and North American delegatations were all opposed, because the European containers were slightly wider than 8 feet. A compromise was struck in April 1963. Smaller containers, including the European railroad sizes and American 5-foot and 6 2/3-foot boxes would be recognized as "Series 2" containers. In 1964, these smaller sizes, along with 10-, 20-, 30-, and 40-foot containers, were formally adopted as ISO standards.

backward-compatibility issues with the installed base:

A ship built with cells for 27-foot containers could not easily be redesigned to carry 35-foot containers. Most ships then carrying containers had shipboard cranes built to handle a particular size, and they would have to be converted to handle other sizes. Large containers might prove impossible to fill with the available freight, but smaller ones would increase costs by requiring more lifts at the dock. Some lines had made large investments that could be rendered worthless if their containers were deemed "nonstandard."


Not a single container owned by the two leading containership operators, Sea-Land service (the former Pan-Atlantic) and Matson, conformed to the new "standard" dimensions.

and last-minute hacks:

Instead they proposed a minor change to the fitting that the MH-5 committee was designing based on the Sea-Land patent. If the hole on the top of the fitting were moved half an inch, they estimated, 10,000 containers—about 80 percent of all large containers used by U.S. railroards and ship lines other than Sea-Land—would be "reasonably compatible with Sea-Lands's. The fitting they recommended, they said, would cost less than half as much as the National Castings fitting ($42.24 versus $97.90) and weigh barely half as much (124 pounds verus 236).


Through 1966, engineers around the world tested the new fittings and found a variety of shortcomings. As an extra check, a container was put through emergency tests in Detroit, just ahead of another meeting of the ISO committee. It failed, the fittings on the bottom of the test container giving way under heavy loads. When TC104 convened in London in January 1967, it was faced with the uncomfortable fact that the corner fittings it had approved in 1965 were deficient. Nine engineers were named to an ad hoc panel and told to solve the problems quickly. They agreed on the tests that fittings would have to pass, and then two engineers, one British, one American, were sent to a hotel room with their slide rules and told to redesign the fitting so that it could pass the tests. Requiring thicker steel in the walls of each fitting, they calculated, would solve most of the problems. No existing container complied with their "ad hoc" design. Over the bitter complaints of many ship lines that had encountered no problems with their own containers, ISO approved the "ad hoc" design at a meeting in Moscow in June 1967. The thousands of boxes that had been built since ISO first approved corner fittings in 1965 had to have new fittings welded into place, at a cost that reached into the millions of dollars.

Remember, this is a rectangular metal box with fittings at the corners. What makes standards-setting complicated isn't primarily that the technical issues are difficult—though they certainly can be—but that they require coordination between multiple players who often have radically different incentives.

UPDATE: s/MD-5/MH-5/. Thanks to Chris Walsh for pointing this out.


Is your use of "MD-5" up there a (very understandable!) typo, or are MH-5 and MD-5 two container-related standards/committees?

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