ESC: Time to reconsider ‘gray box’ concept
The European Shippers' Council said Monday it is pushing for an industry-wide reconsideration of the 'gray box' concept in container shipping.
The concept essentially calls on container lines to pool container equipment in order to facilitate container repositioning and reduce maintenance and repair costs. The industry is in the midst of a global container shortage, due primarily to a lack of equipment orders the last two years and slow steaming measures by container lines that employ more boxes per service.
The ESC said its members have agreed to form a working group, open to shippers and others in the maritime supply chain, to examine whether the “gray box” concept could alleviate those container equipment shortages as well as reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
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'During the first half of 2010 especially, members of the ESC Maritime Transport Council reported on shippers concerns and difficulties being encountered in their supply chains as a direct consequence of equipment shortages,' the ESC said. 'Container shortages affected the continuity of trade flows in various locations around the world. Slow steaming, notably on the transpacific and Asia/Europe trade lanes, was one of the suggested causes for container shortages being more pronounced this year than in the past. Other key contributory factors cited included trade imbalances and the lack of investment in container fleet renewal during the period 2008-2009.
'Carriers undertook some actions to resolve the situation by investing in extra equipment and introducing ships to move empties to where they were most needed. Nevertheless, such solutions come at a price, and generally these are passed on to shippers; additionally they may not resolve the problem nor prevent the same thing happening again.'
The ESC admitted the idea has never taken hold in the past because of carriers' reticence to abandon branding of their boxes, and because 'the reorganization it entailed was considered too overwhelming.' But the council said it may be time to re-imagine the idea as a way to cut down on air emissions associated with supply chain activities.
'Realistically, the 'gray box' concept may not solve structural imbalances, but the potential to improve turnaround of equipment and thereby increase efficiency and making more boxes available in the hinterland is worth further investigation,' said Jean-Louis Cambon, chairman of the ESC's Maritime Transport Council and head of the ocean management committee at tire manufacturer Michelin. 'The 'gray box' concept does raise some big questions, largely surrounding ownership/leasing of the equipment, interchange procedures, and the impacts of abandoning corporate or product branding on boxes. This is what the proposed working group should explore as a priority.'