As the costs of trans-ocean shipping continue to increase and the supply chain more actively embraces sustainability, a new concept in intermodal shipping containers could represent a significant shift in how trans-ocean cargo is transported, handled and stored.
From a cost perspective, when an intermodal shipping container arrives at its destination port and is off loaded, most ports will provide container drayage from the shipping dock to either a nearby logistics depot/distribution center or alternatively an intermodal facility, to be transferred to railcar or truck. At the terminus of the supply chain, when break bulk has occurred, these containers either remain empty in storage yards or are returned to the destination port empty. Industry experts note that as many as 25 percent of these containers are ultimately loaded back onto ships and returned to the point of export without cargo. Due to such, shipping lines must charge significantly higher fees to offset this lack of backhaul revenue.
Climate experts agree that greenhouse gas emissions from international maritime transport are of critical importance. While such groups as the Council Working Party on Shipbuilding and others discuss potential shipbuilding innovations, other interim steps are clearly necessary. One of these interim steps may be the collapsible shipping container, which is simply a shipping container constructed of fiber plastic composite materials which can be folded flat. Invented by Cargoshell BV, a Dutch company based in Rotterdam, collapsible containers, according to company claims:
According to Dutch company Cargoshell, collapsible shipping containers occupy a quarter of the volume when folded.
Notwithstanding these potential benefits, there are many obstacles to success. These include, but are not limited to:
- the underlying cost, estimated to be up to three times higher than a steel container;
- potential objections of the longshoreman’s union who would need to include the new containers in their collective bargaining agreements;
- specialized equipment, including rail and track chassis, that may be required; and
- additional coordination required by the shipping lines to differentiate between steel and collapsible containers and their commensurate placement shipboard.
In what may be the largest barrier to entry, the International Organization for Standardization, (ISO) which develops classification and test methods for intermodal shipping containers, has yet to certify collapsible containers — a must in order for these containers to be accepted by the shipping lines.
According to Joe Harris, media/public relations manager at the Port of Virginia, collapsible containers are decades away from being a reality. “There are so many variables that it is hard to say what the future holds for this technology. At some point I’m sure it will fill a niche. Ultimately, its success or failure will boil down to cost and need.” While collapsible shipping containers are clearly innovative and may hold promise, only time will tell if that promise turns into widespread industry acceptance and usage.
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