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Complexity of container stacks - Rubik's cubes and vigintillions of combinations

Photo: YouTube screen grab rubikscube.jpg
The loss of containers from vessels in bad weather was very much in the headlines at the end of last year with the ONE Apus, and incident also highlighted the hugely complex calculations and operations behind the safe loading of ultra-large vessels.

During a webinar held by the Standard Club for the launch of the third edition 'A Master's Guide to Container Securing', Seb Brindley, lead specialist at Lloyd's Register, one of the reviewers of the guide, attempted to quantify the vast complexities of container stowage.

To illustrate the number of combinations Brindley produced a standard 3 x 3 x 3 Rubik’s Cube. “This Rubik’s cube has 43 quintillion possible combinations, that’s more than the total number of grains of sand on every beach in the entire world. Most importantly this Rubik’s cube has only one combination,” he explained.

Scaling the puzzle of a Rubik’s cube up to 100 containers the possible combinations became even more mindboggling.

“If we take just 100 containers and 100 container slots and we look at the different combinations those 100 containers have a vigintillion (that is a word) times more possible combinations than a Rubik’s cube. So that is 1 and 157 zeros. That’s a big number, that’s more than the number of observable stars in the universe. Most importantly those 100 containers have only one solution and that’s the loading plan,” Brindley stated.

Then scaling this up to vessels of up to 24,000 teu and taking into account that all the containers have to be perfectly stowed, lashed and every twist lock needs to be locked, he said: “It is without a doubt the container shipping industry completes a remarkable feet in every single port.”

Earlier in the webinar Yves Vandenborn, director of loss prevention for the Standard Club, noted that according to the World Shipping Council an average of 1,382 containers were lost per year between 2008 and 2019.

“If we consider there are 226 million containers currently shipped each year the World Shipping Council stated this is less 1000th of 1% of containers lost,” Brindley said.

However, also highlighted that the WSC says the industry seeks to make container losses as close to zero as possible.

“If you look at classification societies, statutory regulatory bodies, and also now this Master’s guide, these are here to support that goal,” he said.

He also recommended developing a detailed understanding of container securing software on vessels. “The software is excellent support for managing container securing, please take advantage of it, and if you don’t have the software please ask for it. Fellow speaker William Leschaeve, senior naval architect at Brookes Bell, also highlighted the use of software.

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