Reinventing the box

Staying power: the container has proved remarkable resistant to change
Staying power: the container has proved remarkable resistant to change
"A pair of Connectainers can prevent three loading moves, three discharge moves, four teu onboard and about 8 tonnes of cargo," Jesús García López, Connectainer
"With any idea, we ask how we can sell it first. Only then do we get on and design it," Martin Clive-Smith, BLOK Container system
"Twistlocks have proved a problematic part of the supply chain for years," Peregrine Storrs-Fox, Thomas Millar & Co
Uplifting: picking up a connected ‘Blok’ of empties is likened to picking up a six-pack of beer rather than a single can at a time
Uplifting: picking up a connected ‘Blok’ of empties is likened to picking up a six-pack of beer rather than a single can at a time
Joined up: Connectainer’s smart plate responds to pairing
Joined up: Connectainer’s smart plate responds to pairing
"These containers get heavily beaten, and the concern is, how quickly do they become damaged, and how much cost to repair them," Bill Brassington, ETS Consulting

Innovations for the humble container never seem to stick. Stevie Knight investigates

The container has remained the same form, with roughly the same issues for over 50 years. So, why exactly is it so resistant to change?

There are some elegantly simple ideas out there, but as Peregrine Storrs-Fox of Thomas Miller & Co explains, although some are edging into acceptance, others, while being completely reasonable, fail entirely.

Take an issue that’s been around for as long at the container itself: “Twistlocks have proved a problematic part of the supply chain for years; it’s loose gear, they get damaged, they’ve dropped on people...” So, a box with twistlocks integrated into the corner posts would have been a blessing for all concerned. “The only problem,” says Mr Storrs-Fox, “was that the idea came about 50 years too late – every part of the logistics chain would have required restructuring, from onboard lashing to rail cars, handling equipment... everything.” 

Despite this, some innovations might buck the trend. Take, for example, the BLOK Container system. It's a way of chunking empties together with twistlocks “and in the same way we pick up a six-pack of beer rather than a single can at a time” it will make empty container moves much easier, says founder Martin Clive-Smith. According to him, it doesn’t just lend safety - the twistlocks are fitted off-quay - but given that four (and later six) containers can be handled in one go, it promises to “raise lifting rates from a present average of 30 per hour to between 120 and 180 per hour”. This, he says, could save the industry $1.5bn a year. 

The idea might be on the verge of breaking into the market as box manufacturer Singamas QSOE is about to start trialling it from its terminal in Shanghai. When asked how he overcame the inevitable challenges, Mr Clive-Smith explains earlier lessons showed him the need to reverse the usual process: “With any idea, we ask how we can sell it first. Only then do we get on and design it.”

Further, costs drive revisions, although it might not always be the largest items that need attention. While efficiency demands investment in a bespoke 5m wide trailer, the initial trial concept used a ‘BLOK-beam’ to tie the containers together: the issue was a pair were priced at something like $5,000 and they went off with the ship each time. Industry feedback drove the company to another, simpler solution: adapt the spreader itself and allow specially designed (but still relatively inexpensive) twistlocks to hold the BLOK in one piece. Although these will still need to be collected in dedicated bins and reloaded onto the ship, they’re far easier to replace. 

The mating game

It’s also possible to get much cleverer about shuffling boxes. As chief executive of Connectainer Jesús García López points out, a number of areas have an imbalance with producers in China or Asia exporting 40' containers filled with lighter, more voluminous cargo like high-tech goods, machinery or textiles, while many places in Europe and the US want to export more heavily-loaded 20' boxes. The answer? Make a box that easily joins or breaks into two. 

It’s achieved by swinging one end of a pair of 20' containers in and upward to meet the ceiling, fastening them together and sealing the interior joins with waterproof strips. The process should take less than half an hour and results in a fairly standard 40' container: dividing it again is equally simple. The joy of this system is that it’s true ‘drop-in’ technology that requires no special handling equipment.

Given an asymmetrical 20'/40' in-out demand on specific routes, there’s a lot to be gained. Mr García points out that rather than swapping two smaller boxes for a double, a pair of Connectainers “can prevent three loading moves, three discharge moves, four teu onboard and about 8 tonnes of cargo”. He calculates it could save millions of dollars as well as hundreds of tonnes of CO2.

There is a bonus: the company is researching ‘liquid ink’ container numbers that will automatically update their status. The need for this bit of high tech kit opens other doors: an additional QR screen could hold information on both contents and history; he predicts ‘smart boxes’ will become part of the ever-growing Internet of Things. It’s a revolution already underway: Maersk, for example, is outfitting reefers with Remote Container Management devices: a GPS allows global tracking and a modem and SIM card collects the reefer’s atmospheric conditions and power status. A shipboard satellite transmitter picks up the data streaming from the modem and sends it, real-time, to a satellite that beams it back to the landside management offices.

Creased up

There are other ideas looking for a spot in the limelight: for example, the SL-Tainer can put down its feet and hop off the back of a truck without lifting. Although it’s nowhere near as cheap as a standard box, it doesn’t need a crane to unload which means it probably has a niche in remote, off-the-track locations.

Focused on more commercial routes, foldable containers like 4Fold, HCI’s packable, four-into-one 40ft high cube, is picking up interest with a number of routes around China, Korea and India as well as Europe-America runs: it’s even reaching into the supply chain with a Turkish trucking company and Sino-Russian rail link.

The cost of manufacture is a sensitive subject for all innovation: economies of scale come much later. For example, it was reported that the initial manufacturing costs of the 4Fold stood at over four times a standard container, although Simon Bosschieter of HCI says the company “aims to get the price of 4Fold down to just double a standard container inside three years” and points out even at present, payback could be as little as 18 months.

However, given that there are just over 100 of these containers in operation at present, there’s still some way to go. It’s a familiar story says Bill Brassington of ETS Consulting, who adds that despite a quarter of a century covering a variety of folding designs, the idea still hasn’t completely taken root.   

This pattern isn’t limited to collapsible boxes, there are, he says, a number of stumbling blocks to negotiate. Firstly, perennial chicken-and-egg issues undermine even modest innovations: “Many years ago we designed an information tag that went onto the side of the container, but the lines wouldn’t incur the cost of fitting the tag because the logistics side didn’t have readers, and the logistics operatives wouldn’t invest in readers because there were no tags,” explained Mr Brassington. 

There’s also wear and tear. He says: “These containers get heavily beaten, and the concern is, how quickly do they become damaged, and how much cost to repair them?”

This is related to another obstacle standing in the way of novel container design: “The industry is maintained by a collection of simple metalworking facilities,” says Mr Brassington. “While you can always find welders, it’s not so easy to find people with, for example, composite materials skills. So there’s reluctance to invest in anything that takes you away from a simple metal bashing system.”

However, possibly the largest, overriding issue for box innovation is its propensity to go walkabout.

“Things simply don’t end up where they should,” says Mr Brassington. “Someone sees a shiny new container, thinks it’s just right for their job... and it suddenly ends up in Africa.”

Not so good if it’s one element in a specialised system.

OUT OF CONTROL

The problem isn’t just that your expensive kit will roam the world, “anything that folds or requires different handling should be in a closed loop where the depots knows how to assemble or disassemble it, and carry out proper repairs”, says Bill Brassington. Open up that loop and trouble will eventually find a way in.

He adds: “Even the simple folding flat-rack relies on a locking device: if this gets damaged, using something inappropriate to fix it renders the whole stack unsafe.”

On the same note, Mr Storrs-Fox adds you need to make sure that each part of the supply chain that interacts with the new technology thoroughly understands any differences. “For example, a packer in Inner Mongolia has to know that you can’t simply bang a nail into the floor of a composite container... you have to find other ways to secure the cargo.

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