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A collapsible shipping container aims to revolutionize global shipping (fastcompany.com)
45 points by dc2k08 on Jan 14, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 32 comments

Does it really help all that much? Seems to me there is no point in bringing more empty containers to China than full ones back. There already is enough space for the full once, so what does one save by collapsing them? Not sure where the 25% less weight come from - another subject altogether (I don't think it is the air inside of the container...Also I think they are often in lower pressure anyway?).

In an ideal world, every vessel would sail back with the same amount of containers it came with, just filling up with empties on the weaker leg of the trade. However, there are many, many factors that can hamper operations (e.g. port congestion, vessel being behind schedule, lack of trucks for empty repositioning, etc), which don't always let you use your space to 100% capacity.

A single operational problem can cause hundreds of containers to be stranded on the wrong side of the trade and sit unused for months. It's incredibly difficult to catch up and recover when you're at a space premium.

There's also the issue of inland transport. You could save 75% of empty freight costs with this.

However, I'm pretty skeptical of the idea in general, as containers are handled quite roughly and damage to the side panels is very common. If they cost x3 to produce, they'll probably cost x10 in M&R.

I believe the weight savings is from the materials/design, not the fact that it collapses.

And it seems the advantage of collapsing containers is that you could more efficiently shuffle the empties in complex shipment chains.

Would you rather ship 100 containers to the US and have 20 China-bound US shipments and 80 empties come straight back? Or ship 100 containers to the US, take on the 20 China-bound shipments, collapse the 80 empties and have room for 60 more elsewhere-bound US exports you can drop off on the way back?

There aren't any complex shipping chains. Goods go china -> Europe/US the only thing that goes back is waste.

I can't see this helping. It costs more in a very price sensitive industry. Rollup doors means it isn't going to be used for shipping anything valuable or anything which then needs further onward shipping at the destination - are you going to have a truck full of DVD players going down the highway with canvas doors!

None of the existing handling systems is going to be able to deal with them, so you will need special cranes to load the collapsed ones - unless you load them inside regular containers.

> None of the existing handling systems is going to be able to deal with them, so you will need special cranes to load the collapsed ones

Not true. The photos clearly show the standard locking mechanism present (twistlock holes in corners). The procedure to tie several of them into a bundle is probably the same as with flat racks, and yes, those can be lifted by regular cranes.

They are regular containers when up, but when folded they are just big flat heavy pieces of freight - so you can load them as any other 40' long piece of freight but that means extra handling gear, forklifts, cranes etc at the customer's site to collapse them.

You can put them on flat rack, but those are a pain to handle as well. Now if eg. 10 of these folded flat could lock together and be the same height as a regular container and and be handled as a regular container that would be great.

Frankly when you can pay < $1000 for a new steel container in China nobody is going to be buying expensive, unproven composite containers however clever.

Unfortunately, managing US bound exports is probably not a problem right now unless it's containers full of toxic pcb material that we dump into foreign landfills.

IIRC the US takes in more shipping containers than it sends out, so we have empty containers accumulating here.

and you can see them by the thousands on US-1/9 in Newark just south of the Pulaski Skyway. They started piling up there when I was an undergrad in the area 10 years ago, and the pile just gets larger.

Wow, what a metaphor.

I suppose we could get China to accept them for recycling.

That's probably another idea: to create containers from some material that makes it easy to reuse them as something else (if only burning for heat). That would safe a lot of shipping costs, too.

Just for laughs, maybe one could even create throwaway ships.

It's not completely unthinkable: I think a lot of floats worked that way, like shipping stuff down rivers (where it wouldn't make sense to tow the floats upstream again).

Why can't the containers ship themselves anyway? If they were autonomous robots with a GSM receiver, could become cost effective?

Edit: this last idea excites me, actually. I would love to work on autonomous robot containers roaming the sea. Pirates might be the worst problem?

They are made from a material that is easy to reuse - steel. In fact you can't make modern furnace steel without adding scrap steel to the blast furnace to control the temperature.

The problem is that the floors of the containers are wood and to protect the farmers they are impregnated with some of the nastiest pesticides you can imagine - so no foreign bug can hitch a lift.

Used containers are basically toxic waste, if you are reusing them for housing/storage/etc you are supposed to remove the floor, sandblast the inside and repaint everything in an EPA approved paint - which costs several times as much as the container.

Uncomfortable thought, especially since probably everything we use has traveled in that toxic box. I wonder if it even make much sense - don't the bugs find a way to travel anyway?

You're thinking logically - try thinking like a politician who has a lot of farmers in their constituency, or who belongs to a party where the first primary is in a farming state, or needs another politician from a farming state onside

Regarding containers that ship themselves, aside from the piracy issue, and making sure that the full container plus accessories was still buoyant, I suspect there are economies of scale that make it more fuel-efficient to gather thousands of containers on a single boat. (Now, a robotic sailboat... hmmm.)

Some architects have designed houses made from recycled shipping containers: http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/shipping-con...

Shipping containers are used for student housing where I live. http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&...

Economics of scale: probably. But maybe there are also other factors. For example it seems impossible to power a large container ship with solar cells, but maybe for a smaller container-ship it would become feasible? Some not so urgent goods could perhaps just drift in the currents, too? No idea, though...

I actually just had the other thought to call out a sort of X-Prize for the first autonomous robot ship that crosses the ocean. Or maybe it has already been done anyway.

> Just for laughs, maybe one could even create throwaway ships.


The weight savings comes from the material it's made of. From their website:

"Cargoshell is manufactured from composites and therefore much lighter than a steel container."


and that's where higher price comes in as well.

why not make collapsible metal container? (if it's needed at all)

Because it would necessarily be heavier and more expensive than a regular container. Regular containers have been optimized to be about as cheap as possible while meeting the specs. If you also want to make it fold you are going to have to use stronger material in parts - plus things like the doors are going to be very difficult.

So you are likely to have a container that costs more, is heavier, isn't waterproof or as secure and is more expensive to handle. It's only benefit is lower volume for the return leg - volume isn't a big problem for ships.

It's like building a convertible - it always ends up heavier more expensive and less stiff than a regular car.

You've just inspired another revolutionary shipping idea. Create a vacuum in all the empty shipping containers being returned to make the ship lighter. ;-)

From my limited experience in the freight and export business, I am skeptical that they managed to design a collapsable container and reduce weight without compromising the structural integrity of the container. Standing in a shipyard and seeing a 40-foot container almost being thrown around is awesome, but I can't see this standing up to the rigors of the day-to-day life of a container.

Reducing weight doesn't necessarily mean they've reduced the containers strength in anyway. Aluminum alloys, by weight, can easily be three-times stronger than Steel alloys. By volume, I believe it can easily be ten-times stronger than steel. By a three-fold price increase over a standard container, I'm certainly betting they've got aluminium in there.

A fully aluminum container could be significantly stronger/lighter (not both) than a steel container, and it would have a significantly longer lifespan than steel as a rigid container could be virtually maintenance free for virtually ever. The only losses to the industry would likely be when a ship goes down, and then the containers would remain ready and waiting for salvage to return to work.

However turning the entire freight industry from Steel to Aluminium containers would probably require depleting all the earths aluminium reserves, and then likely require discovering an extra-terrestrial source and probably depleting that too.

Honestly, I don't think this new container will catch on for being light or collapsible. Also, a thing to wonder, is if the amount of rust washed off of shipping containers annually is helping promote algal blooms.

> However turning the entire freight industry from Steel to Aluminium containers would probably require depleting all the earths aluminium reserves, and then likely require discovering an extra-terrestrial source and probably depleting that too.

The 8 most common elements in Earth’s crust (by mass):

  * 46.6% Oxygen (O)
  * 27.7% Silicon (Si)
  * 8.1% Aluminum (Al)
  * 5.0% Iron (Fe)
  * 3.6% Calcium (Ca)
  * 2.8% Sodium (Na)
  * 2.6% Potassium (K)
  * 2.1% Magnesium (Mg)
(from http://www.windows.ucar.edu/tour/link=/earth/geology/crust_e...)

You just have to use 50% more aluminum by volume than you would steel - 3/8" plate instead of 1/4" to achieve roughly the same strength. The total aluminum would still be 25% lighter than a comparable strength steel container. Steel is much more abrasion resistant though and aluminum has low fatigue strength - something to consider if its bobbing in the ocean and on trucks for its 25 year+ lifetime. Wouldn't have to paint it though!

I don't think you got my point: I think, with (essentially) a giant hinge down either side, despite how much stronger whatever alloy is going to be, the container may not be as structurally stable as the current design.

The current design is built entirely for longevity and strength--this new one seems to eschew that to me.

That's not saying it isn't a good idea though. There is definitely a scope for improvement on the current design, and this might be a good start.

They do claim it costs 3x. If someone told me that they had a kit car convertible with the crash safety of a Honda Accord, but it cost $80k, I don't think I'd be surprised.

There's a u.s. company that reuses abandoned shipping containers , to build cheap homes for Mexican families.a family house built this way should cost $8000.


So it would be probably much more effective to reuse container to build homes for the poor , than to fold them.

Here's a video of the collapsible container:


start at 1:05 to save time.

They forgot to add that it costs not insignificant amount to collapse and rebuild these things as well.

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