It’s not unusual to find stories in the financial pages about companies and individuals buying up portfolios of patents — often related to software — just to become “patent trolls,” or defend themselves from such trolls who have no intention of ever creating a product themselves, but aggressively seeking to shake down businesses for supposed patent violations.
So it was interesting to hear Ron Katims, a long-time executive of both Sea-Land Service and Navieras De Puerto Rico, say at this year’s Port of New York-New Jersey’s Port Industry Day conference that he considers the most important decision ever made in the containerization and intermodal industry was that of industry pioneer Malcom McLean “to give up all the patents, the hundreds of patents that Sea-Land had on the container system.”
“He decided it was better to give up those patents and grow the industry rather than keep them as a proprietary item. He saw that if he gave up the patents and it became universal, we would have intermodal trade, and we would have something that was good for the customer… Intermodalism prospered and so did Sea-Land,” he said.
Katims, who today is an advisory member on the board of directors at the consulting firm TranSystems, also spent some time at the same event talking about another fateful decision from the early days of containerization — the decision to make standard size containers 8 feet wide by 8.5 feet high and either 20 or 40 feet long.
He noted that originally Sea-Land used a 35-foot box and Matson deployed a container measuring 24 feet long.
An international committee later picked the dimensions for the standard TEU and FEU, but Katims said there was little rhyme or reason for the decision other than two times 20 equals 40. The 8-foot width on marine boxes made little sense, he said because two pallets would not fit side by side in the container.
“Twenty and 40 foot was never the right size,” he said. “I believe we are going to see different equipment — we are going to see 53s and 48s and 45s, because those are better economic sizes. We are going to see 8-foot, 6-inch wide, 9-foot, 6-inches high. That’s the future.”
“Someone once asked me, ‘what is the best container size for cargo?’ Well every customer would like something that is best suited for him, but the studies I have done have found that 53 foot is a terrific size, matching our highways and our ships and it is a size that matches the needs of shippers, and that is the most important thing.”
Domestic 53-foot containers are growing in popularity in the domestic market, Katims noted, but he said most do not have the strength to be carried internationally. (APL, however, has introduced some 53-foot containers, and McLean himself came around to this idea when he built the Puerto Rico carrier Trailer Bridge’s truck-barge system around a 53-foot box.)
Katim’s remarks came to mind last month when we heard the announcement that Walmart Canada is testing several domestic 60-foot trailers that can carry 30 percent more cube than standard 53-foot trailers and can be run with tractor units equipped with so-called “dromedary boxes” that can further expand capacity by 10 percent. The beat goes on. — Chris Dupin