After the surge in output of 2021, the past 18 months have proved particularly challenging for Chinese box builders with the production of dry freight standard containers, especially 40ft high-cubes, falling sharply. Globally, high levels of inflation and economic uncertainty have dampened trading prospects and hence the demand for new containers. The industry is also still dealing with the oversupply of containers that built up over the Covid-19 pandemic period.
On the basis of production in the first nine months of this year, output for the full year is expected to be the lowest since 2010, when weak cargo demand and the economic and trading upheaval following the global financial crisis meant just 450,000 teu were produced.
While 2023 will not see production plunge to that level, output this year is only expected to be in the 1.3-1.5 mteu range, down from over 3.8 mteu in 2022 and 7.1 mteu in 2021. Drewry will be providing updated assessments and forecasts for container production in its forthcoming Container Equipment Forecaster report later this month.
However, output of newbuild specials has bucked the trend with demand relatively strong for open-tops and flatrack containers. Partly, this is related to owners ordering fewer of these types of containers during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the focus was on buying 40ft high-cube equipment. In addition, a growing number of ageing open-tops and flatracks need to be replaced and demand to move breakbulk and project modules by container is growing, particularly for cargo associated with the renewables energy industries.
Specials’ share of the global container pool remains small, at around 2.5% measured in teu terms (see chart). But due to their higher cost, their value share is nearer 4%, according to assessments provided in Drewry’s Container Census & Leasing Annual Report 2023/24.
Interestingly, the past year has seen a new 48ft folding flatrack designed for China’s burgeoning car export trades, while China Rail Group has started phasing into some of its inter-city intermodal express services 50ft high-cube containers. These units have a tare weight of about 3.6 tonnes, a payload of 31 tonnes and an internal volumetric capacity of 114 m3. This is important as it is 50% higher than that available in 40ft standard dry freight maritime containers that the rail company has been mainly using for this sector of its business.But it is developments outside of the maritime sector that are presenting some of the biggest opportunities to container manufacturers, including China International Marine Containers, Dong Fang International Containers and Singamas, and all are investing in plant and machinery to build these special purpose units.In particular, it is the growing demand globally for energy storage units as wind and solar farms provide a greater share of the world’s electricity. This market is seen as being more stable and predictable than the volatile container shipping industry.As a result of these trends, Drewry expects the fleet of special containers to accelerate and its share of the global container equipment fleet to grow over the coming years.