Way back in the 1950’s when container shipping was in its infancy, the container itself had yet to be standardized. Indeed, the definition of a container at that time ranged from Europe’s 4 to 5 feet tall wooden crates with a steel reinforcing frame to Sealand’s and Matson’s containers, most of which were 8 square feet at the base. The Marine Steel Corporation of New York manufactured over 30 different types of containers. As written by Marc Levinson in The Box “This diversity threatened to nip containerization in the bud. If one transportation company’s containers could not fit on another’s ships or railcars, each would need a vast fleet of containers exclusively for its own customers.” It was not until 1958, when the United States Marine Administration, or Marad, formed two committees to recommend container size standards and study container construction.
In late 1959, Marad’s committee agreed on the 20’ and 40’ container size standard which prevails in the industry today. While there have been a few advances in the structure and design of containers since, until now the basic box has not changed. One of the great challenges in the industry since the inception of the container has always been the cost of moving empty containers from surplus to demand areas. This is particularly true at inland depots.
With one-third of Canada’s population living in south western Ontario, most carriers are challenged with surplus equipment which has to be moved out at great expense by truck or rail. Efforts to reduce costs have centred on export match back strategies and the use of boxes in domestic freight moves, which have had, at best, inconsistent results. One interesting development, which may prove useful in cost reduction, is the Vertical Folding Container by Staxxon Technologies out of Dayton, Ohio.
Staxxon says that by retrofitting boxes with its patented technology 5 20’ containers can fit into the space of one. The company claims that the design approach honours existing IMO, ISO and CSC industry standards, and, even more critical, maintains the structural integrity of the 25 MT steel containers in use today.
Staxxon Founder and CEO, George Kochanowski says, “ While others have focussed on the use of horizontal collapse methods or use composite materials in containers, Staxxon’s designs are laser focussed on the top business issues facing carriers, ports, terminal operators, and container fleet operators….” Staxxon product it claims will assist in faster vessel turns and better container and vessel utilization.
The video available on the Staxxon blog (no website yet.) shows the container from a semi-folded state then pushed fully together, which takes less than 20 seconds. What is missed, however, is the work involved (how long?) to unlash the supporting bars running across the tops and bottoms of the container which allows it to fold up like a toddler’s playpen.
While the prospect of fitting five containers into the space of one has to be intriguing for carriers, at this point there are more questions than answers.
1) What is the cost of retrofitting?
2) How much time/money is lost folding and unfolding containers?
3) Are inland depots and terminals (for that matter) able to set aside the containers and prepare them in their open state for truck pick up? What is the cost of that preparation?
4) Can the containers be lashed together safely in bunches to allow gantry cranes to pick up five at a time?
5) Currently empty containers are generally loaded on top of loaded containers to maintain the stability of the ship. What effects will the weight of five boxes in one slot have on ship planning and stowage?
According to a reliable source, a single major carrier in Vancouver moved over 6000 empty containers to back to China and the Far East in June and July of this year. Like many others, the carrier is under tremendous pressure to move empties back to China. The 6000 containers would have moved over 10 ships for an average of 600 per ship. Imagine the benefit to the carrier if they could load four or five times more empties without increasing lift costs?
Intermodal benefits are obvious. What if five empty containers could move in equivalent of one rail slot from Toronto to Vancouver?
The box has changed little in 50 years; perhaps Staxxon’s Vertical Folding design will be the breakthrough the industry needs.