Breakthrough Box Design: Vertical Folding Containers

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.

2 Responses to Breakthrough Box Design: Vertical Folding Containers

  1. John,

    Great post. Thanks for mentioning Staxxon’s technology. Here are the answers (and some additional questions or requests) to the questions you raised.

    If your readers are interested in responding or participating in our next set of vertical folding steel sea container demonstrations, tests and trials, they can:
    -post comments here (we’ll track the comments)
    -send me an email (toms at staxxon.com)
    -call me at +1.650.523.4944
    -track our future announcements at our blog – http://#

    And yes, we’re working on a web site but we need to get a few more bits and pieces organized before we’ll be ready to provide a great user experience.

    Tom

    1) What is the cost of retrofitting?

    Staxxon’s preliminary target for bill of materials and (US) labor cost for retrofitting a 20′ container is currently estimated to be about $2,500 (USD) with labor being the majority of the cost estimate (assumes reuse of the existing plywood floor.) The expectation is that, over time, the cost of materials will fall as folding container volumes increase and parts are standardized.

    The first question that any container fleet owner/operator considering retrofits needs to evaluate is: what the operational costs savings will be (and over what period of time) if empty containers on highly imbalanced closed routes were folded for repositioning? In some cases, retrofitting existing containers may make economic sense. In other cases, having new containers manufactured with folding technology may be a more cost effective approach.

    At Staxxon, we used a retrofit approach to prove the concept of vertical folding. Our business model is based on licensing the know-how for folding steel containers to container fleet owner/operators and materials vendors, all of whom have access to state-of-the art manufacturing and repair facilities that could optimize the work flow and deliver materila cost reduction for a retrofit approach.

    The cost target we’ve set for retrofit, as best we can determine, is in line with the combined materials and labor costs to replace a plywood floor in a typical 20′ container. We’d like feedback on our business approach to retrofitting which assumes that instead of going through a full floor replacement cycle at roughly the mid-point of a container’s useful life, the container gets retrofitted for vertical folding, existing marine plywood for floors gets recycled and the useful life of the container is extended 3-5 years. Is our thinking on target?

    Manufacturing new steel containers with folding technology will have a lower incremental cost than a retrofit approach but require manufacturers to make minor modifications to production lines, quality assurance and testing/acceptance processes. Staxxon’s target bill of materials and labor cost for the incremental cost of making a new 20′ container fold is currently estimated at 20% of the quoted costs for manufacturing a new 20′ container (e.g. $2,800 cost of a new container, folding version target cost is $3,360.)

    2) How much time/money is lost folding and unfolding containers?

    Staxxon’s current target time to use a labor intensive process to go from unfolded to folded is 10 minutes with 2 people. Unfolding time targets are slightly lower. To be clear, this is the target time for the entire folding or unfolding process, not the single step of folding the container to 19″ using a fork lift (20′ container) or a yard crane (40′ container.) Our competitors tend to focus on the time required for the final step to collapse their plastic containers to the ground. Our best guess today is that folding will occur primarily at off-port container storage depots (not at terminals or docks) and that unfolding will also occur at off-port storage or staging depots (though unfolding location and labor will vary by port and country.) Folding may generate new jobs and additional hours in some terminals and depots.

    The related question is how much money can be saved by container fleet owners/operators from reduced storage costs plus fewer picks, moves, lifts and touches for empty containers? Will the operational cost savings offset any increased labor expense related to folding or unfolding? Will off-port storage centers offer better rates for folded containers that occupy less real estate? Will “wheeled ports” be able to operate more efficiently by using folded empty containers? Will folding reduce the load/unload/vessel turnaround time in port enabling more vessels to be served by the terminal operator in the same time?

    2.a) 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?

    The time required to adjust (unlock pins, adjust, re-lock pins) the top and bottom beams is currently about 4 minutes. This is included in our target fold/unfold time of 10 minutes. Our next prototype will incorporate some changes that may reduce the labor time associated with locking and adjusting the beams. The beams address important safety issues during folding/unfolding and add structural integrity to the container. The beams also support lashing or “ganging” up to 5 folded containers to be moved as one container in groups of 2, 3, 4 or 5. Unlike the collapsible methods used by our competitors which requires matched sets of folded containers, the Staxxon folding technology allows as few as 2 containers to become a folded set by folding to a width of 48” instead of 19″.

    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?

    Yes, inland depots and terminals will be able to fold/unfold using equipment and labor skills that exists today. Our target time is approximately 10 minutes using a labor intensive process to fold/unfold. We look forward to working in a trial/test phase with inland depot and truck terminal operators to determine the best methods for folding, unfolding and moving folded containers.

    4) Can the containers be lashed together safely in bunches to allow gantry cranes to pick up five at a time?

    Yes, lashing or ganging up to 5 containers to be moved as one container by a gantry crane is a design objective. The Staxxon design adds more vertical load bearing capacity than is present in a regular empty or full container Later this year, Staxxon will be demonstrating a group of five containers that can be moved in the same space as one container. The top and bottom beams are used to connect and stabilize the group of 2, 3, 4 or 5 containers. The weight of 5 folded and lashed empty containers is still below the total weight capacity of a full container. The existing vertical beams and corner boxes are always maintained in the Staxxon design making the use of existing gantry cranes possible.

    After we succeed with CSC evaluation in the unfolded state, our next set of tests will focus on safety, workflow, regulatory compliance and performance in the folded state at ports, terminals, depots and on vessels. We are actively seeking test and trial partners from the sea/rail/truck carrier, container fleet owner/operator, port, terminal and inland depot segments to work with us on a wide variety of issues, including adapting terminal management systems to identify and manage folding container fleets. We would also welcome feedback from health and safety regulators and look forward to working closely with the standards committees involved with sea containers.

    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?

    Great question – Folded empty containers lashed in a group can now be planned for stowage anywhere in the vessel cell system, including at the bottom or in the outer side cells. By folding and grouping empty containers, more vessel loading optimization scenarios are available. The weight of five containers is less than the weight of one fully loaded container. Some have theorized that having a set of 5 folded containers placed in the outer ring of vessel cells above the deck would be a benefit in terms of protecting cargo from wave action.

  2. Tom,

    Thank you for the detailed explanations to the questions addressed. I’ll put out another post highlighting your responses, in case any of our readers miss them. I would certainly be interested in any of your upcoming trials as I think this type of technology will contribute greatly to the industry.

    Thank you again for your comments.
    John

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