Many container trades are lopsided, with great numbers of loaded boxes moving in one direction but not the other.
Such imbalance has led some companies to investigate the possibility of building folding containers to reduce the cost of storing and transporting empty units. Several say they have workable designs and are seeking to ramp up production.
Simon Bosschieter, managing director of Holland Container Innovations (HCI), said his company has made about 10 of its “4FOLD” containers, which gained ISO approval and were recently tested by the American Bureau of Shipping and Korean Register of Shipping.
The containers have been used to carry fertilizer between Rotterdam and Bilbao, Spain, and tires between China and the United States, he said.
HCI is affiliated with the container leasing company CARU, and Bosschieter said about 100 of its folding containers have been ordered from a manufacturer in China.
When the 4FOLD containers are folded flat, four of them can fit in a space normally used by a single empty container. He said the container can be folded using equipment such as reach stackers.
For now HCI is focusing on 40-foot containers, but Bosschieter said the company has had some discussions about building 53-foot containers for domestic use in the United States.
In contrast, Montclair, N.J.-based Staxxon has created a 20-foot container that folds concertina-style left to right. Two to five containers can be squeezed into the space normally taken up by a single empty container. Tom Stitt, marketing director for Staxxon, said the company sees that flexibility as being a major operational advantage for potential users of the containers.
Staxxon has made about seven of its folding containers for testing. The product, Stitt said, has been issued a “CSC plate” to show compliance with the International Maritime Organization’s Convention for Safe Containers.
“I describe us as being past the proof of concept stage,” Stitt said, though noting the containers have yet to be used to transport cargo.
The company spent the second half of last year perfecting its design, reducing the empty weight of the container.
“We think the 20 foot product is where the sweet spot is initially, especially with developing economies or other places where container equipment tends to be highly unbalanced,” Stitt said.
“A good example I like to use is from Melbourne, Australia, to Tasmania. There’s also an equipment imbalance there, but the 20s always tend to come back empty,” he said. Services to Caribbean islands, and domestic markets, such as Hawaii, Guam and Alaska, have similar characteristics, he added.
“You could free up the real estate they occupy at the terminal, and also free up the slots that the empties are occupying on what are typically fairly small containerships,” Stitt explained. “There’s often enough demand for the slots that you’re actually opening up some slots to laden cargo.”
Because several folded empties can be lifted at once, collapsible containers might reduce the number of lifts needed to load and discharge a ship, and allow the vessel to make faster turns.
Other companies working on folding containers include Rotterdam-based Cargoshell, which has developed a unit made from composite material, and Compact Cargo Solutions (CCS), based in Boca Raton, Fla., which has developed a 40-foot high-cube container.
Bosschieter estimates in a couple of years the cost to make a folding container will fall to about double that of a conventional container, but said his company believes economies associated with them will allow the difference in price to be earned back in 18 months.
Stitt said Staxxon believes at modest volumes its container is going to cost about 30 percent more and the payback to an investor will be at least as fast for a standard dry container, if not faster.