Specialization in the shipbuilding industry has brought massive changes to ocean shipping. As a result, special ships have increasingly been constructed for different types of freight. Specialisation helps speed up cargo handling, thus reducing the costs per unit transported.
General cargo ships can be compared with bulk carriers but are in fact shipping specialists. A large proportion of the goods they transport are awkwardly-shaped and bulky, and do not fit into standard containers. Their cargo includes heavy goods and project cargo for major building projects such as power stations, offshore installations and mining. Some pieces of cargo weigh more than 1000 tonnes.
The capacity of the global oil tanker fleet is huge and stood at 418 million tonnes in 2009. This makes oil tankers the most important cargo ships in the global fleet next to bulk carriers. Pollution from tanker accidents has reduced considerably in past decades, despite the increased volumes of oil transported. This can mainly be traced back to improvements in shipping technology.
The container shipping industry has grown considerably in importance over past decades. Standard container sizes have led to significant savings of time spent on unloading and transferring cargo to trucks and rail. In terms of capacity per ship, container ships are now far larger than general cargo ships.
Bulk carriers, like oil tankers, accounted for 35 per cent of the total capacity of the global fleet in 2009. These ships transport goods such as ores, coal and cereals. The principal routes for ore shipments are from South America and Australia to Europe and China.
The total capacity of passenger ships and cruise ships, accounting for only one per cent of the global fleet, is relatively small. Nonetheless the activity is booming. Despite the economic crisis the major shipyards are continuing to build bigger and increasingly elaborate ships.
In addition, ferries for shipping trucks as well as roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) ships, which carry articulated lorries to drive the cargo onto the ship, are taking over the tasks of general cargo vessels on short-haul routes, while refrigerated vessels ("reefers") specialise in transporting fruit and other perishable goods, mainly from the Southern Hemisphere.
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