FORTUNE — Not since 1956, when a North Carolina truck driver named Malcom McLean created a standard-size container for cargo, has global shipping seen such radical change. Carriers are bigger than ever, ports are becoming automated, and routes are shifting. The volume of goods that move between ports in Asia now accounts for 13% of all seaborne trade, up nearly a third from a decade ago. Routes through the ice-free far north now beckon. While global shipping volumes rose 6.2% in 2011 and port operators were profitable, owners of container ships were hit hard by overcapacity and falling cargo rates.
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This story is from the May 21, 2012 issue of Fortune.