Supersizing the Panama Canal: the Future of Materials Handling Is Here

Panama CanalPlanned by American engineers and built by Central American laborers at the start of the 20th Century, the 77.1 km Panama Canal ushered in a whole new era of opportunity for global trade. Suddenly, in one grand swoop, the world’s merchant marine didn’t need to round Cape Horn at the tip of South America in order to get from Atlantic to Pacific, and/or vice-versa. As a result, new ports and markets were accessible to the free market’s ups and downs in a way that was without precedent.

While the Panama Canal (and the Suez Canal in Egypt) continues to provide easy passage for a large percentage of the world’s mercantile fleet, a growing number of late 20th century and 21st century “super-tankers” are just too bulky to navigate through the canal’s locks safely. Of the 50,000-odd commercial shipping vessels operating today in the world, a minority are super-tankers. While these ships, nicknamed “Panamax” or “Post-Panamax” vessels, constitute a minority of the total number of merchant boats afloat, they also happen to carry a disproportionately large percentage of the world’s total cargo tonnage. Furthermore, these same super-tankers supply a whopping percentage of the world’s total supply of oil and fuel. Without super-tankers operating in the game, the world’s economy would come effectively to a halt.

Efforts currently are underway to upgrade the Panama Canal to meet the standards of today’s merchant marine. In a referendum approved by 76.8% of Panamanian voters, the Republic of Panama adopted a resolution that would expand the Canal’s width and depth at several crucial points, thereby allowing it to accommodate the 37% of the world’s shipping that would else wise no longer be able to navigate its full course.

Being that we at Liftomatic are in the business of supply drum handling and lifting equipment to some of the world’s foremost ports and companies, and being that so much of today’s total steel drum barrel traffic comes in the form of oil barrels, we can’t ignore these developments – if simply on the behalf of our client base. The world is changing. Yesterday’s feats of engineering are beginning to look like flyweights in comparison with the engineering of tomorrow. Everyone who wants a seat at the table in determining the course of maritime trade for the next century should be paying attention to Panama.