Giants of the seas

Modern ships – large, fast and highly specialized

Modern ships are very different from those operating a century ago. A number of innovations have helped shape the ships of today and fuel the growth of maritime freight traffic. The most significant innovations have to do with size, speed, specialisation and the automation of maritime and port activities.

The average size of ships has increased substantially as larger vessels benefit from economies of scale reduce the shipping costs per load unit for crew, fuel, demurrage, insurance, servicing and ship maintenance. As a result of increasing vessel sizes, port authorities must respond by expanding port infrastructure (wharfage, transport connections inland) and improving port access (e.g. by deepening fairways).

Infrastructure constraints are often the major factor determining the use of different categories of ships (e.g. Panamax ships suited to the Panama canal maximum beam width).

Streamlining ship operations

Specialisation and economies of scale have had an important impact of shipping costs per unit transported but automation both on-board ships and in ports has led to momentuous efficiency gains, as well as improved safety.

Various automation technologies have been introduced to shipbuilding and ship operations, including self-loading/unloading systems, computerized navigation, and the global positioning system (GPS).

Automation has markedly reduced the number of crew needed and at the same time substantially improved safety standards. As a result, far fewer vessels are lost due to accidents or sinking despite the sharp rise in fleet numbers.

Speed as an economic variable

Speed is an important element for shippers. For decades, the aim was to build faster ships that would shorten maritime routes and reduce the costs associated with being at sea.

In a shipping market suffering from record oversupply and low shipping prices, ship operators tend to reduce speed in order to remain competitive. This explains that average speeds have dropped to about 11 knots.

Since the invention of the double propeller, marine propulsion has not made any significant forward stride. While the modern merchant ship has an average speed of about 15 knots (about 28 kilometres per hour) and can travel the equivalent of about 670 kilometres a day, the latest ships are capable of 25 to 30 knots (45 to 55 kilometres per hour). However, achieving even higher speeds is a technological and economic challenge, as with greater speeds efficiencies tend to fall and fuel consumption rises, increasing the cost of transportation.

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