The supply chain disruption triggered by the pandemic has revealed the problems caused by megaships and the chronic state of many of our most important container ports.

The global COVID pandemic has triggered the worst supply chain disruption, since the launch of the container shipping era almost seven decades ago, challenging port infrastructure and in many cases overwhelming port capability entirely.

At any time over the last 18 months there have been hundreds of container ships waiting outside ports around the world, often stuck at anchor for days, before a berth is available for them to unload their containers.

Supply chain disruption and delays has contributed to stock shortages and delays to deliveries, as the pandemic-led boom in online shopping has continued to increase demand.

Many of the world’s biggest and most important ports have been upgrading their infrastructure for some time, automating operations and building facilities that can handle the new generation of megaships.

Port complexes are often old, with capacity restrictions and limited ability to serve the increasing size of container ships, which can carry over 20,000 twenty-foot containers, requiring deeper docks and bigger cranes.

Drone footage of the world’s (current) largest container ship, the Ever Ace, arriving at Felixstowe

Southampton port is investing £40m to meet growing demand for the next decade, while Felixstowe has invested heavily in its infrastructure, with extensive redevelopment, berth extensions and numerous cranes to handle an additional 2M+ teus by 2030. 

But new infrastructure takes time to deliver. Even a crane can take 18 months from being ordered to installation, making it hard for ports to respond quickly to changes in demand. Particularly in emerging markets, where there was often chronic congestion even before the pandemic. 

Although the larger vessels’ economies of scale are intended to drive down costs, they also mean ports receive fewer calls, which impacts their revenue and with the pandemic raising costs and hitting margins, ports have cut expenditure by reducing staffing. Which is not sustainable.

In the UK, most ports are wholly owned by the private sector that believe the government need to help them meet net zero targets, that include raised quays and improved flood defences.

Global supply chains are under intense and sustained pressure, and are likely to be so for some time, which is likely to result in profound and possibly systemic change. We share the most important developments, as they happen, so that you are informed and able to take critical decisions to protect your supply chain.

By kees torn – EVER ACE, CC BY-SA 2.0,