Today's largest container ships carry loads equal to the capacity of more than 16 pre-World War II freighters. To put it into context, the volume they can carry is almost enough to fill up the entire Empire State Building.
Not so long ago, a typical large cargo ship would be carrying 4,000 containers. Innovation on the part of shipping operators pushed this figure up to 14,000 about three years ago. And now it stands at around 20,000 containers as operators strive to move increasing amounts of goods around the world faster and more efficiently than ever.
But is the industry moving in the right direction? Is bigger necessarily better when it comes to the size of container ships? Or is there a different route to optimising shipping operations?
With increasing pressure to reduce sulphur emissions ahead of new rules being introduced next year by the International Maritime Organization, perhaps it's time to look at the bigger picture rather than just bigger cargo vessels.
Route optimisation using techniques like dynamic route planning – where ships shorten their routes, taking other vessels' movements into account through shared information – has the potential to make transportation by sea more efficient.
A study looking at the Baltic Sea and the North Sea found it was "plausible" that routes could be shortened by 1% on average. This would reduce costs to society by €80 million a year – of which 35% would be reduced fuel costs and 65% reduced emission costs.
So just think what might be achieved with the help of the 360-degree view provided by our state-of-the-art spatial big data platform.
If a typhoon threatens to leave a particular port unusable because of flooding, for example, ships can be diverted away from the problem rather than being left stranded. Real-time visibility of an entire fleet's location means last-minute changes can be made to routes to avoid either ships or cargo being left waiting.
Looking further over the horizon, accurate information will be vital when it comes to adjusting to potential disruptions such as 3D printing. Instead of carrying finished goods from Chinese factories to the UK, for example, the focus is likely to switch to transporting the ingredients we'll all need to print items in our own homes – and therefore opening up new shipping routes.
Add in other potential sources of turbulence such as trade wars and it becomes clear that simply building larger container ships – albeit environmentally friendly ones – might not be enough. The winners will be those who break free from the moorings of traditional shipping route timetables and go with the flow of a more flexible approach.