Shipping containers are big in design news lately — usually for their role in creative reuse or as emergency housing. But the logistics and supply chain industries are still innovating and improving how these workhorses of international trade are designed and used for moving cargo. And the Staxxon collapsible shipping container design is a great example of this.
I talked to Tom Stitt, the corporate development director and co-founder of Staxxon, a New Jersey-based startup that has created a shipping container prototype designed to reduce fuel use and save space on cargo ships.
Here’s the idea: take a standard (ISO-certified) 20-foot shipping container and add hinges so that top and bottom of the container so that they can be folded in, allowing it to be compacted when empty. The Staxxon design allows up to five folded containers to fit in the same space footprint as one single (expanded) container.
SmartPlanet: What are the main problems you think the Staxxon container design can solve?
Tom Stitt: Most people talk about the “empty container problem” in terms of trade imbalances and other things. That’s not the problem. The problem that we’re addressing is the carbon footprint and cost associated with moving empty containers. That’s where the real big problem is. Our goal is to reduce the number of moves an empty container makes — in the shipping industry they call those picks, touches or lifts. It’s the number of times someone has to move something.
Secondarily we’re solving the problem of space. In some parts of the U.S. — more on West Coast than the East Coast — we’re running out of real estate in ports. If you can put the empty containers in a smaller amount of space, then you have more space for laden [filled] containers, which is where the money is. Carriers issue invoices when a container is full of commodities and they hope that that invoice also covers the cost of getting that container wherever it needs to go next, once it’s empty. So you want to reduce the cost of moving the empty container around.
It also means the guy that runs sustainability at Walmart picks up another way to reduce the carbon footprint of whatever product or commodities the retailer is importing, because it reduces the carbon footprint of the empty moves.
SmartPlanet: But how much energy are you actually saving? And where does the savings come from?
Stitt: If you think of a truck hauling an empty container [between a port and a warehouse, for example], now imagine the same truck hauling five empty containers. That truck is burning roughly the same amount of truck fuel as it would by moving one laden container. But more importantly, instead of having five trucks driving to a terminal and then lining up [idling] to get into a port terminal, you have only one.
The more complex calculation would be based on all of the equipment — some of which is electric, some of which is diesel or liquid natural gas — that’s used in marine and rail terminals to move containers around. And I’ll be straight with you, we just started working on a calculator to calculate that.
But in terms of footprint reduction, truck-moves is one area and terminal-moves is the other area [where we can reduce emissions].
In terms of loading the ship, it comes down to loading the ship faster [since there are fewer containers to move with the compacted containers being bound together] and unloading the ship faster and putting more on the ship.
If the empties are loaded onto a ship in 20% of the time that would usually take, and if 20% of a typical [ship] load is empty containers, you’re picking up some flexibility for the carrier. Time savings means it might be able to use super slow steaming for the container ship instead of the regular slow steaming to transport the load, which is a further fuel savings.
SmartPlanet: Where do you think are the optimal uses and users for your containers?
Stitt: We think the optimal point of entry are on what are called short sea transits [or routes or lanes] that are highly unbalanced on one end — meaning very little comes back in containers. A good example is the route from Newark [NJ]/San Juan, Puerto Rico/Jacksonville, Florida. A lot of stuff goes down to San Juan and very little comes back in containers so that’s a route where we think this technology makes a lot of sense in terms of carbon footprint reduction and the cost savings benefits we talked about earlier.
It also makes a lot of sense in emerging economies — a good example of this is Vladivostok in far eastern Russia, which is being transformed into a major container port. It has way too many empties and what’s worse is that those empties are taking up space that would otherwise be used by laden containers coming out of Vladivostok.
SmartPlanet: What has happen in terms of pilot?
Stitt: We’ve built 7 or 8 prototypes now. We started on the assumption that we can start with existing containers and adopt it, but we determined that’s not optimal because existing containers tend to have a lot of damage. So we moved onto using a kit from the largest Chinese supplier of containers, a company called CIMC. We buy kits from them and use about 80% of the kit and the rest we reuse and turn it into the components that Staxxon folding and nesting technology uses.
There needs to be an efficient way of folding and nesting, and then unfolding and un-nesting, the containers. Look for that later this year - but it won’t require a forklift. And most of it will probably happen off-terminal, most likely in storage facilities.
Here’s a video simulation of the how the containers nest: