April 12th in Shipping by .

Mass Market Foldable Shipping Container.

Inventors in the US, Netherlands and India are moving closer to easing a headache that costs the shipping business billions of dollars a year, reported The Wall Street Journal.

Empty containers must be shuffled around the world to be refilled, requiring millions of ship, truck and rail journeys that yield no revenue.

“It’s a huge expense, a huge headache for the industry,” said Neil Davidson of London-based Drewry Shipping Consultants. The net cost of moving empties is around US$7 billion a year, …

Inventors in the US, Netherlands and India are moving closer to easing a headache that costs the shipping business billions of dollars a year, reported The Wall Street Journal.

Empty containers must be shuffled around the world to be refilled, requiring millions of ship, truck and rail journeys that yield no revenue.

“It’s a huge expense, a huge headache for the industry,” said Neil Davidson of London-based Drewry Shipping Consultants. The net cost of moving empties is around US$7 billion a year, said analysts.

The possible solution: a mass-market foldable shipping container.

Industry officials say trucks, trains, barges and ships could carry four times as many containers if they were folded and stacked on top of each other. That would cut the cost of moving empties by as much as 75 percent, saving billions of dollars, say analysts and the makers of the foldable containers.

The world’s biggest container shippers, including AP Moeller-Maersk, CMA-CGM, NYK Line and Evergreen Group, say they are waiting for proof that foldable containers work and are affordable before they will commit to investing.

Because of their complexity, foldable containers would cost at least $4,000 each, roughly double the cost of normal containers. The boxes must be able to withstand the heat, cold and salt water of the high seas, and the rough handling of dock cranes.

On ships, containers are stacked up to 10 deep, so each one needs to be able to withstand 350 tonnes of weight. They also must work within the standardised systems used worldwide in highly automated ports.

After decades of attempts, recent engineering developments, society’s need for a greener product and shippers’ need to save fuel costs are bringing the foldable containers nearer to market.
Compounding the push has been the huge global trade boom of the 2000s, fuelled by China joining the World Trade Organisation and boosting exports to $1.2 trillion in 2009 from $249.7 billion in 2000. The number of shipping containers doubled as the industry grew at 10 per cent a year, to roughly 16 million.

The shipping container — a steel, rectangular box usually 20 or 40 feet long (six to 12 meters) — is the building block of global trade, greatly raising the productivity and efficiency of shipping and port operations since coming into use in 1957.
Cutting the expense of moving empties would raise profit margins at a time when the shipping industry is reeling from the financial crisis — the industry reported losses of about $20 billion last year, according to Drewry.

“It would solve a lot of problems,” says Davidson. “But it comes down to economics and engineering: Can you make it work?”

Since the 1970s, there have been several efforts to crack the puzzle. In the first, an Australian company developed a container in which all the sides detached. But the sides kept getting separated from each other, and the container never caught on. There were other unsuccessful attempts in the 1980s and 1990s — they were too heavy, or fell apart or took too long to put together.

Engineers say recent innovations, to make reinforced steel lighter and composite glass sturdier and more flexible, as well as new design ideas, can meet the technical challenges.

Rene Giesbers, heir to a central-heating fortune in Rotterdam, in 2007 designed a composite fiberglass container and started a company, Cargoshell. He is hoping for help from the Dutch government in the form of a green label that would give companies buying his container tax breaks.

The container’s vertical walls fold inwards, giving it an X shape as it collapses on itself. He says his container saves 75 percent of the fuel needed to transport it, and says the material is as strong as steel but won’t rust and requires less maintenance. He says he has a contract with a manufacturer and plans on selling the first containers by this summer.

Boston-based Compact Container Systems has also come up with a design for a container that also folds by hinging at its side walls. It demonstrated its first prototype at a trade fair in November and is now working on revisions.

Simon Bosschieter, a 28-year-old engineer from the Netherlands, designed a container with folding walls that slide into each other. He says his company, Holland Container Innovations in Delft, has a manufacturing partner and is planning to put its first containers on the market by this summer. He says the containers are made with a steel alloy and are sturdier than others.

Indian banker Avinder Bindra designed a container that, like HCI’s, has sliding walls. But his folded containers are stacked vertically instead of horizontally, which he says makes them more balanced and makes it possible to use standard lifting equipment to move the stacks. His company, Simpri Investments, is in the final stages of completing a prototype, he says.

4 Comments

  • Pushpa
    April 13, 2010
  • Ron
    December 5, 2010
  • IVO GIOVANNINI
    January 2, 2011
  • Daksha
    January 11, 2011

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