The Container Ship that can Carry 29 Billion USD Worth of iPhones

On the south coast (UK) I’m accustom to seeing huge container ships slowly pass through the English Channel.

From many kilometers away these ships look huge, though I never really gave them a second thought.

That was until the Ever Given became stuck in the Suez Canal a few weeks ago, and a photo of a large bulldozer looked like a toy truck when stood next to the ships hull.

Turns out these ships are huge, and much, much bigger than I first thought.

Methodology

Container TEU

The twenty-foot equivalent unit (abbreviated TEU or teu) is an inexact unit of cargo capacity, often used for measuring container ships and container ports. It is based on the volume of a 20-foot-long (6.1 m) intermodal container, a standard-sized metal box which can be easily transferred between different modes of transportation, such as ships, trains, and trucks.

All other costs and analysis can be assumed correct at time of writing (March 30th).

Analysis

Largest Shipping Companies

Rank Company name Headquarters Total TEU Ships
1 Maersk Denmark 4,097,898 705
2 Mediterranean Shipping Company Switzerland, Italy 3,860,388 579
3 COSCO Shipping China, Hong Kong 3,022,882 503
4 CMA CGM France 3,015,485 570
5 Hapag-Lloyd Germany 1,730,615 240
6 Ocean Network Express Japan 1,577,156 218
7 Evergreen Marine Taiwan 1,279,412 195
8 Hyundai Merchant Marine South Korea 719,026 72
9 Yang Ming Marine Transport Corporation Taiwan 623,148 92
10 Zim Integrated Shipping Services Israel 356,201 80

Full table.

Largest shipping companies by total TEU (Mar 2021)

Download chart.

You have probably seen many of these names printing on the side of ships previously.

Maersk, the largest company by TEU capacity, has capacity for almost 4.1 million containers (TEU’s) on 705 ships.

There is a large difference of carrying capacity between largest and tenth largest shipping companies. The tenth largest, Zim Integrated Shipping Services, has a maximum carrying capacity of just over 356,000 TEU’s on 80 ships — about 8% of what Maersk can carry (TEU’s).

Largest Container Ships

Container ships have been built in increasingly larger sizes to take advantage of economies of scale. Though container ships are also subject to certain limitations in size.

Primarily, these are the availability of sufficiently large main engines and the availability of a sufficient number of ports and terminals prepared and equipped to handle ultra-large container ships.

Furthermore, some of the world’s main waterways such as the Suez Canal and Singapore Strait also restrict the maximum dimensions of a ship that can pass through them.

Rank Count of ships in category Built Operator Length overall (m) Beam (m) Maximum TEU Gross Tonnage
1 7 2020 HMM (South Korea) 399.9 61 23,964 228,283
2 5 2020 HMM (South Korea) 399.9 61.5 23,820 232,311
3 6 2019 MSC (Switzerland) 399.9 61.5 23,756 232,618
4 5 2019 MSC (Switzerland) 399.8 61 23,656 228,741
5 6 2020 CMA CGM (France) 399.9 61.3 23,112 236,583
6 6 2017 OOCL (Hong Kong) 399.9 58.8 21,413 210,890
7 6 2018 COSCO (China) 400 58.6 21,237 215,553
8 3 2018 CMA CGM (France) 400 59 20,954 219,277
9 11 2017 Maersk (Denmark) 399 58.6 20,568 214,286
10 2 2017 ONE (Japan) 399 58 20,182 210,691
11 4 2017 ONE (Japan) 400 58.8 20,170 210,678
12 4 2019 Evergreen (Taiwan) 400 58.8 20,160 219,775
13 7 2018 Evergreen (Taiwan) 400 58.8 20,124 219,079
14 5 2018 COSCO (China) 399.8 58.7 20,119 194,864

Full table.

Largest container ships (TEU) by class (2021)

Download chart.

Yes, that’s right… the largest container ship in the world can carry 23,964 containers (TEU)!

To purchase and launch this ship cost its owners, the Korean company, HMM, over $140 million. HMM own 7. Thats a total value of $980 for these 7 ships. Which doesn’t sound to bad considering that a private Airbus A380 (when on sale) was priced at $402m to buy.

Payload Value

You could put 2,660 boxes full of iPhone X’s in 40-foot shipping container. One TEU is half that size, so 1,330 in a standard TEU.

The cheapest iPhone 12 is $799 and most expansive $1,399. Let’s assume an average retail price of $1,099.

Assuming the box size of the iPhone X and price of the iPhone 12, a single TEU could carry $1,241,870 ($1,099 x 1,330) worth of the devices.

If all TEU’s (23,964) on the largest container ship were full of iPhones, that’s a total of 27,079,320 iPhones with a combined retail value of $29,760,172,680 (29 Billion).

For reference, Apple sold 218 million iPhones in 2018. So the largest container ship can supply around 12% of the world total iPhone demand alone.

Fuel costs

The OOCL Hong Kong, in the 6th largest class of ship, can carry 14,904 cubic litres of fuel (or 14,904,000 litres). In comparison, an Airbus A380’s fuel tank can carry 320,000 litres.

Today, the Global 20 Ports Average Bunker Cost (bulk fuel cost) is $500 per US metric tonne. Let’s assume 1 metric ton of fuel = 1.192 kiloliters (note: this is a rough estimate as it assumes fuel is diesel, which is compositionally slightly different to heavy fuel used in ships). Given this, $500 buys 1192 litres, or 1 litre = $0.42.

That means, at todays prices it will cost $6,251,678.27 ((14,904,001*$0.42) to fill the OOCL Hong Kong’s fuel tanks.

I couldn’t find specific data on engine consumption. The amount of fuel actually used on a sailing depends primarily on the ship’s speed. Most ship engines have been designed for top speeds ranging between 20 and 25 knots per hour, which is between 23 and 28 miles per hour.

At a high level I found a Panamax container ship (Panamax and New Panamax are terms for the size limits for ships travelling through the Panama Canal)  consumes about 63,000 gallons of marine fuel per day at optimum speed.

63,000 gallons = 286,403.67 litres. So thats $120,289.54 per day! Enough for 52 days at sea (14,904,000/286,403.67).

The Ever Given Problem

When the Ever Given was blocking the Suez Canal, shipping companies had two options; wait, or head around the Cape of Good Hope.

According to Refinitiv via the New York Times:

A journey from the Suez Canal in Egypt to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands — Europe’s largest port — typically takes about 11 days. Venturing south around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope adds at least 26 more days, according to Refinitiv, the financial data company.

So fuel costs for waiting would be around $1,323,184.94 ($120,289.54*11) for the rest of the journey.

Redirecting via the Cape of Good Hope would cost around $4,450,712.98 ($120,289.54*37). $3,127,528.04 more expensive than via the Suez Canal ($4,450,712.98-$1,323,184.94).

A rough estimate provided using this calculator, puts the cost of the largest ships operated by HMM (South Korea) travelling through the Suez Canal at about $800,000 in fees. Even with these fees factored it, it is still significantly cheaper than going around.

In the end the Suez was only blocked for 6 days, so even with a backlog of ships waiting to move through, it would have been more cost effective (and time effective) to have waited (though hindsight is a wonderful thing!).

Improvements

In the case of converting gross tonnes to litres I use diesel fuel as the fuel type (not heavy marine fuel) to provide a rough estimation. I could not find any liquid conversion measurement tables for marine fuel, but these would make the fuel calculations significantly more accurate.

Access to fuel consumption data for the worlds largest ships would also improve fuel estimations produced in this post.

tl;dr

The worlds largest container ship can hold 23,964 container (TEU) — enough to carry $29 billion USD worth of iPhones.

Footnotes

  1. Data sources + data used in this post.