Shipping Containers and the Future Internet of Things

The shipping container and containerization protocols underwrite and sustain the global economy. New technologies make it possible to more effectively track shipping containers in real time, like an "internet of things". Greg Smith and guest co-author Jordan Hale explore the implications for ubiquitous computing and the fabric of urban life.




Image: Flickr/Ramon LlorensiA HYPOTHETICAL JOURNEY: loose electronics components arrive in a waterfront factory in Tianjin, China, where they’re assembled into televisions and packaged for sale in North America. Approximately 150 boxed televisions are loaded into a single container, which is subsequently placed on a truck and loaded onto a ship alongside containers holding a variety of other products. The cargo ship sets sail for the Port of Long Beach and arrives ten days later. Containers are unloaded onto rail and trucks, and rapidly routed to replenish stock in Target stores across the Midwest. 


Tianjin, the largest seaport in the world, has historically been referred to as the "Capital Gateway" due to its proximity to Beijing and its naturally deep ice-free harbour. The present day port is the product of the Chinese government’s expanding Open Door Policy: beginning in the 1970s, top trading municipalities were given increased control over local taxation and planning. With their newfound autonomy, port cities like Tianjin attracted critical foreign direct investment from multinational producers, while building sophisticated infrastructure networks to facilitate the efficient movement of goods and securing the city's position as a critical node in global networks. 


As a result, the production and assembly of many brand name consumer goods takes place in Chinese industrial regions that have been expressly designed to promote efficient transnational commercial flows. They are regulated according to the spatial logics of international trade. At the core of the Tianjin Economic Development Area lies a bonded logistics park. It contains high-security production zones that simultaneously function as transport depots and customs stations – blurring distinctions between “local” and “global” and complicating any conventional sense of geographic scale. Tracking the movements of cargo containers through the port can help determine the complexity and reach of such global networks. They are important physical fixtures of international trade; the shipping container and containerization protocols are what made the global economy possible. They underwrite it, and they sustain it.


American entrepreneur Malcom McLean and engineer Keith Tantlinger developed containerization in the 1950s to streamline the loading and securing of goods on cargo ships. Earlier mass movement of goods by water and rail involved lashing cargo to wooden pallets and then moving them with a dockside winch. Loading and unloading pallets was time-consuming, labour-intensive and physically risky  as the stevedores handling the material were often in direct contact with cargo. McLean’s system proposed 2.4m x 2.4m x 3m modular units made from 25 mm thick corrugated steel, a design still in use today. They can be sealed, lifted and loaded via gantry cranes, which dramatically increases efficiency by reducing the number of times cargoes are moved and provides shippers with additional security by stowing goods in opaque, homogeneous boxes. McLean patented the design for standardized containers in 1958, but instead of cashing in on them, he opted to share the schematics with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in the hopes of stimulating the industry. McLean’s instincts were spot on: according to a 2004 RAND study, approximately 90% of the world’s cargo is now shipped via standardized containers. 


The benefits of the shipping container extend far beyond its interface with the gantry crane and the cargo hold. Containerization thoroughly transformed geographies of production and consumption, ushering in an era of intermodal transportation: modern ports like Tianjin are built to enable the swift and seamless transfer of containers between rail, truck and shipping lines.


Given the meticulously managed trajectories of goods illustrated in the example that opens this article, the options available for vendors to access real-time information on mid-transit containers is surprisingly limited. A 2008 BBC documentary on shipping and globalization, The Box, tracked a GPS-equipped shipping container for a year while investigating the production of its contents. Container tracking usually relies on radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging, not GPS technology, so this was new territory. It begs the question: are shipping containers smart objects, nodes within the internet of things?


Interaction designer Tom Igo describes the dawning era of "networked objects" - the widespread deployment of simple electronic devices, “modules with simple, easy to understand interfaces” that can be used to build anything: “object-oriented hardware.” We need only look as far as the innards of an average smart phone for electronics components that are now being used to network shipping containers. ConLock and ContainerSafe are examples of a new breed of snap-on "peripheral devices" that offer a range of tracking, security and monitoring functionality. These devices are equipped with onboard photoelectric sensors to monitor changes in the light level within a container (indicating that a container has been opened or breached), accelerometers that detect impact and GPS modules for location tracking. They’re also able to access GSM networks and SMS channels to send text or email alerts when waypoints are reached or anomalies occur. All the sensor data is available to customers via proprietary web and mobile interfaces. This is presumably the direction that container tracking is headed: real-time logistics informatics, traditional supply chain management information dashboards. However, there are substantial technical challenges that stand between current methods of container tracking and the robust, universal solutions required to meet the needs of several disparate groups – labour, retail, international law and security. 


Over the past decade, there’s been speculation that a lack of standards for RFID usage has been a major stumbling block within the logistics industry. The ISO addressed these concerns earlier this year by standardising tag usage on freight containers, returnable transport items, transport units and product packaging. Presumably they will become the global standard in coming years, but given the rapid development of sensor and related web technology we can’t help but wonder whether they aren’t already antiquated. For the future ‘internet of things’ and the real-time web, one initiative to look to is EPCIS, an information standard developed in 2007 by EPCglobal, a consortium of heavy-hitting manufacturers, retailers and defence contractors interested in data interoperability across various industries.


In their 2001 book Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition, Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin claim that because the transportation infrastructure of developing nations is often not up to par with the demands of just-in-time production systems, many port cities are entirely reconfigured through foreign investment to better serve industry needs. The competitiveness of ports and city-regions will be increasingly predicated on such measures of logistical efficiency and speed. Tianjin’s deep harbours, strategic location and landside connections compensate for its physical isolation from southern China’s industrial core. In the same way, the ability of a port to develop ‘soft’ information and communications technologies (ICT) infrastructure could very well determine a new geography of cargo transport. 


Nations can be effectively shut out of global trade for not following the protocols established under the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and its post-9/11 International Ship and Port Facility Security Code amendment.. Will the adoption of stringent RFID and sensor technology protocols be written into these international treaties to satisfy national security concerns, potentially threatening the economic prominence of city-regions in developing nations? Uninterrupted commercial flows are increasingly part of the domestic security discourse, and the presence or absence of this nearly invisible but omnipresent layer of infrastructure is a topic of considerable political discussion.


Earlier this year, designer Fred Scharmen wrote that containers, in their most abstract sense, “shape content without defining it.” They influence the composition of what's packed inside them and affect large-scale transformations of the urban fabric. It follows that if containers can be leveraged as nodes within the internet of things, then the vast rollout of sensor technology that accompanies them could prove to be one of the most challenging and meaningful deployments of ubiquitous computing.




Greg J. Smith is a Toronto-based designer with interests in media theory and digital culture. He is a managing editor of the digital arts publication Vague Terrain and blogs at Serial Consign.


Jordan Hale studies maritime and military spaces from Toronto.