Global Supply Chain and Logistics Focus: Our Weekly Feature Article on Topics Related to the Global Supply Chain and Related Logistics News and Issues  

- April 14, 2010 -


Global Supply Chain News: Will a Foldable Box Now Re-Change the World?


Collapsible Containers Long a Goal, but Solutions have been Elusive; We Profile Four New Promising Products


SCDigest Editorial Staff

SCDigest Says:
Clearly there are potentially huge benefits in moving the containers by truck or rail to exporters that need them, or to move containers transported by rail inland back to ports.

Click Here to See Reader Feedback

More than 50 years ago, Malcom McLean in large part ushered in the start of the current globalization era when he first deployed the ocean shipping containers he had invented at the port of New Jersey in 1956.

Half a century later, is it time to finally rethink “the box that changed the world?”

The physical container that McLean invented is really little changed from its original design, and remains very efficient for shipping goods.

But there are several problems Global trade imbalances, such as Asia to the US or Europe, mean there are many times more full containers coming to some regions than there are reciprocal full containers make a return trip. So, ships must ultimately send back bulky empty containers.

Second, there have always been challenges, especially over the last five years, in moving empty containers inland from port areas to shippers in more central areas of the US, leading to issues of both cost and availability for heartland exporters. (See Back again - Bottlenecks in Shipping US Exports to World Markets.)

Finally, stored empty containers take up a tremendous amount of space, especially in port terminal areas.

Add to that growing concern about the environmental impact and energy use of moving anything these days, and it seems obvious that someone should develop a collapsible container that would take up a substantially smaller footprint when empty.

In fact, many have tried, going back into the 1970s. Several companies have taken a run at it in the succeeding decades, with several efforts looking promising at the time. The challenges are many, starting with the ability of foldable or collapsible containers to withstand the physical pounding of repeated ocean and inland transport trips. Maintenance costs can be high even on traditional containers, and perhaps excessively so on collapsible models. Such containers also need to remain impervious to wind, rain and other environmental elements over time – a harder problem to address than many imagine.

So, these previous efforts have largely failed. But now at last perhaps some real progress has been made.

For example: Successful investment banker Avinder Bindra of India perceived the basic problem, and partnered with the India Institute of Technology. Three years later, the group developed an approach in which the walls of the container, powered by hydraulics, fold up vertically to about one-fourth of the normal container size. (See image nearby, or watch YouTube Video.) It takes one or at most two workers to collapse the new Bindra container.


Compact Container Systems of Boston has taken a similar approach, except its product collapses a container in the other direction (see image below). It demonstrated its first prototype at a trade show in November and is now working on commercialization of the product.


Story Continued Below


Category Sponsor:Kinaxis

The Comedy Series BigERP Doesn't Want You to Watch!




Cargoshell is a Dutch company started by René Giesbers, heir to a fortune from his family business, that takes a somewhat similar approach to making a container flat. It says it take just 30 seconds to make collapse its containers. (See graphic below.) The containers are made of a composite material that weighs 25% less than standard shipping containers.

Another Dutch company, Holland Container Innovations, is also in the business, with an interesting design that features folding walls that slide into each other. It says its containers can be folded or unfolded in about 10 minutes. The company says its containers actually weight slightly more than a traditional container, but can be stacked as many as nine high.


Where are the Benefits?

These new containers can cost as much as twice the price of traditional containers. What is the return from this increased investment?

Clearly there are potentially huge benefits in moving the containers by truck or rail to exporters that need them, or to move containers transported by rail inland back to ports. In theory, four times as many empty containers should be able to be moved in collapsed mode versus today’s model.

The cost to return containers via cargo ship is a little more problematic. While ships could clearly fit something like four times as many containers on each vessel to return to Asia or other ports, that doesn’t impact the fundamental trade imbalance, meaning you will still have the same number of ships returning to Asia with largely empty containers, or just simply empty.

If these collapsible containers take-off, they could clearly open usable space in port terminals and import warehouse yards, yielding additional benefits.

Netting it out, the new containers are largely somewhere between prototype and full commercialization. They will also need approval from various regulatory bodies.

The guess here is that we will see widespread adoption over the next 3-5 years.

What are your thoughts on collapsible containers? Where do you see ROI the ultimately for shippers? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback button below.

Send an Email
Related Videos Related News & Videos
Coming soon