Over the past 40 years container ship capacities have progressively increased by around eightfold (2,400 to 19,000 TEU). We define a new generation as being either an upsize in capacity by 25% or more, or an industry breakthrough, of which there have essentially been only two – the introduction of the post-Panamax and the inauguration of the Maersk Triple-E. Until 2007 the world’s container ship fleet growth was barely sufficient to match demand in an industry which regularly grew by 10% or more year-on-year, everdriven by the requirements of global commerce and outsourcing trends. Much of the growth in ship capacities has been somewhat organic; ship yards have found ways to optimise space within a similar sized hull of an existing generation, increasing capacity by a few percentage points incrementally.
Container ship generations
During the past 40 years, the industry has witnessed seven major container ship generations as depicted in the below table.
Until 1995, with just a few exceptions, container vessels were built with a maximum beam of 32.3m in order to be capable of transiting the Panama Canal. This kept deployment options flexible. But once the maximum length for the Panama Canal (294 metres) had also been reached, the next generation vessel was built to greatly exceed the Panama width restrictions and cater for the explosive growth on the Asia- Europe trade lane. We then experienced a 33% increase in beam as width grew to nearly 43 metres; accommodating 17 rows of containers on deck. Ship yards then reverted to length increases to expand capacity even further, producing 8,000 TEU ships which would become the stock vessel size on the Asia-Europe route. By 2006 Maersk Line had launched the Emma Maersk which boasted 78% more capacity than any existing container ship, with a 56 metre beam and a length increase to nearly 400 metres, this vessel smashed shipbuilding conventions. The vessel class sailed for six years before being surpassed in nominal capacity by CMACGM’s 16,020 TEU Marco Polo, which despite having a smaller hull, was able to increase container intake through moving the bridge forward and having a separate smoke-stack further aft.