FORTUNE — Next year the Danish shipping giant Maersk will launch the largest container ship in the world, the 1,312-foot EEE class. Though only a few feet longer than today’s biggest ships, it is designed to hold 18,000 containers, some 2,500 more than the largest vessels today can hold. As ships have gotten bigger, economies of scale have improved, and the cost of shipping has dropped dramatically over the past few decades. It costs only $1.50 to move a DVD player from China to the U.S. Oil, grain, and iron ore are more expensive because ships make the return trip empty. The route counts too. Carriers charge for the risk incurred by passing through piracy hotspots such as the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen. Transport costs for Africa are the highest in the world, while costs in developed nations are the lowest, thanks to automated ports (soon to feature robotic stevedores) that cut labor costs and increase efficiency.
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This story is from the May 21, 2012 issue of Fortune.