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How Cargo Containers Changed the World

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Can the invention of a steel box really change the world? Cargo containers have existed since the 1950s and are still in use today as a cost-effective solution for shipping freight across the world’s oceans. But how did cargo containers become an essential cog in the global logistics network, and how can they help you and your organization keep stored materials safe? In this blog, we’ll discuss the history of cargo containers, how they’ve revolutionized the shipping industry, and how you can use standard and modified containers for your personal storage needs.

How A Steel Box Changed the Global Economy

Cargo containers waiting to be loaded onto a ship in Oslo, Norway.
Approximately 43 million containers are in use worldwide, and a majority (~23 million) are used in ocean cargo shipping. The largest cargo vessels can carry over 24,000 TEUs (20-Foot Equivalent Units).

After World War II, the shipping industry was a mess. Goods were handled break-bulk, which means that port workers moved all cargo piecemeal. The cost of manually loading a shipping vessel in the 1940s and early 1950s was $5.86 per ton. Thousands of dock workers had to load tons of barrels, boxes and containers: all different weights, shapes, and inventories. Each ship could take as long as three weeks to unload and reload. With such a heavy workload, ports were abuzz with activity. They required massive workforces to staff, and the process was time-consuming and frustrating for everyone involved.

Malcom McLean’s Ingenious System

In 1952, Malcom McLean thought of a system that would standardize the industry and decrease the time ships spent at the port. At first, he wanted to load trucks to be transported directly on a shipping line. However, the system proved ineffective because it wasted a large amount of cargo space. Sure, the cargo was easier to handle, but it wasn’t as effective as it could be.

So McLean went back to the drawing board, and when he came back with a second idea, it transformed the trajectory of the global economy. He devised a design that integrated a rigid, stackable structure with the ability to transport stored goods vast distances on trucks, trains and cargo ships. It was secure, preventing unauthorized personnel from accessing materials in transit. And on top of all this, it was cheap. Instead of costing over $5 to load a ton of goods, Mclean’s new system costs only 16 cents per ton.

The standardization of the cargo container helped develop the globalized world today, but can it help you store non-cargo materials and keep them safe?

What Are the Benefits of Using Cargo Containers for Storage?

Using cargo containers for storage offers numerous benefits. They’re incredibly durable, designed to withstand challenging conditions during transportation and ensure long-lasting protection for stored items. Their solid steel construction, robust locking mechanisms, and limited access points provide excellent security, making them an ideal choice for protecting valuable or sensitive belongings.

Additionally, cargo containers are highly mobile, allowing for easy transportation to different locations. This is advantageous for businesses or individuals with changing storage needs. Regarding cost-effectiveness, cargo containers are often a more affordable solution than constructing traditional storage buildings, as they offer a ready-made option requiring minimal additional construction. The versatility of cargo containers is another advantage, with various sizes available and the ability to customize them to meet specific storage requirements.

They also offer scalability, enabling easy storage capacity expansion by adding more containers. For temporary or long-term storage needs, cargo containers are suitable and adaptable.

Several cargo containers sit in a lot. The container on bottom has a modified window, door and lock box, while the container on top has a modified hatch and a door.
At Southwest Mobile Storage, our container fleet includes mobile offices and other modified units. Containers are easy to modify, and doors, windows, vents and more can be added if required.

Where are Cargo Containers Made?

Containers are typically manufactured in countries with a strong presence in international trade and shipping, and low labor costs. Most containers manufactured today come from China, where they’re manufactured and used heavily in shipping. However, a minority of containers come from the United States, South Korea, Taiwan, Italy, France and Poland.

Manufacturing facilities utilize advanced machinery and technologies to shape and weld steel components, resulting in sturdy and reliable containers. The production process involves cutting and shaping steel sheets, assembly of panels, welding and applying protective coatings to enhance durability and weather resistance.

Once manufactured, cargo container manufacturers transport their steel boxes to ports and distribute them worldwide.

Modified Cargo Containers

A modified cargo container is a standard container that has undergone alterations or customizations to suit specific requirements or functions beyond its traditional purpose of transporting goods. These modifications can involve structural changes, additions, or installations to enhance the container’s functionality and versatility.

Common modifications include adding doors, windows, insulation, ventilation systems, electrical wiring, plumbing, and partitions, among others. These modifications transform cargo containers into various applications such as mobile offices, housing units, pop-up shops, storage facilities, or even art installations.

At Southwest Mobile Storage, we modify containers in our 90,000 sq ft fabrication facility. Our welders and fabricators have many years of experience with container modifications. When you work with us, you’re working with an organization that understands what a container can do. We’ve worked on projects with commercial businesses, government agencies, and individuals to make custom containers for a specific purpose. Whatever you need, rest assured that you’ll be satisfied with the result.

The adaptability and robustness of modified cargo containers have made them popular in various industries, offering cost-effective and flexible solutions for temporary or permanent structures.

A modified cargo container sits in a yard with other containers. The modified container has vents, and a hatch that can be opened and closed from the outside.
If you come to one of our branch locations, you may find containers with modifications or additions that help that container fulfill a certain purpose. We’ve modified this container to serve as a training room for firefighters.

Can I See a Container Before I Buy It?

At Southwest Mobile Storage, you can visit our branch locations between 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. local time. We have container lots at most of our branch locations where you can look at different containers and find the one that will work best for your needs.

Be wary of container dealers that don’t allow you to physically see the container before you buy. Shipping container scams have taken the hard-earned money of many people in the last few years, so don’t get fooled!

Next Steps

After learning about a cargo container’s storage properties, you might be curious about the next steps to buy or rent a cargo container. First, you’ll want to receive a free quote for your container. Contact us and we’ll be happy to provide you with an accurate quote. Once you have a quote, you’ll want to schedule container delivery. Prepare the spot where your container will rest and clear the area of debris. You’ll also want to ensure that the container will rest on solid, dry ground.

Before you know it, you’ll have your own cargo container.

A twenty-foot cargo container being lifted up by a forklift.
From humble beginnings aboard Malcom McLean’s Ideal X cargo ship, the cargo container has come a long way. Today, shipping containers delivered on ocean freight move 95% of the world’s cargo.


The invention and widespread adoption of cargo containers has profoundly impacted the world, revolutionized the shipping industry and transformed global trade. The standardization of these steel boxes, pioneered by Malcom McLean, streamlined logistics, reduced costs, and increased efficiency in transporting goods across oceans.

Cargo containers have changed the global economy and offer practical and versatile storage solutions for individuals and organizations alike. With their durability, security, mobility and cost-effectiveness, cargo containers still have the potential to transform the way you store and protect your belongings.

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