Source: adapted from T. Toikka (2006) “The Real Price for Container Transportation between Asia and Europe”, Lappeenranta University of Technology, Department of Industrial Engineering and Management.
Shippers try to use the volume and weight limits of the container in the most optimal way. Depending on the characteristics of the goods being carried, namely the weight-to-volume ratio, a 20-foot container may not be the optimal load unit. For instance, twice as many cell phones, flat-screen televisions, or shoes could be carried on a 40-foot container without infringing weight restrictions of around 25,000 kilograms. The cargo runs out of available volume before running out of available weight (“weighting out” versus “cubing out“). Since the costs of handling a 40-footer are not much higher than a 20-footer, there are notable advantages to using this load unit (or better, a high cube 40-foot) instead.
For ponderous goods such as copying paper, the 20-footer is the optimum load unit as about 1,700 units weighing just over 20,000 kilograms can be carried, which is the maximum permissible weight. Using a 40-footer for such a load, which is twice the volume, would carry only 2,150 units (27.6% more). Yet, a 20-footer may be a suitable unit for goods with a low weight-to-volume ratio if the demand of the consignee is not high enough to justify a more efficient load (40 feet) or if freight distribution is more dependent on a higher frequency and smaller batches.