It’s not simply a steel box. Globally, shipping containers carried some 1.5 billion tons of goods last year across the ocean, and some 17 million flow in and out of all ports annually. The container, like everything in the industry, is bigger than before — generally double its original size (see illustration). It’s also being reimagined. Some containers are getting fitted with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips that let the ports and the cargo’s owners keep track of what’s inside and its location. Some containers are built to be folded up when empty or to float if lost at sea. The flotsam can even communicate with GPS satellites to make them easier to salvage. The larger problem facing container ships, however, is overcapacity and “savage rate wars,” according to a report by Drewry Shipping Consultants. Ship and container owners lost $6.5 billion in 2011, while ports still brought in profits.
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This story is from the May 21, 2012 issue of Fortune.