Stacking up the equation
Designers/producers of folding containers argue that the concept addresses all of these issues. First, four or as many as five foldable containers can be loaded into a single container for stacking (in terminals, depots and yards) and repositioning purposes, thus saving on handling and transport costs, freeing up space/shipboard slots for other containers and reducing emissions. All folding containers can be stacked anywhere on a vessel.
Richard Danderline, co-founder and CFO of US-based Staxxon LLC, explained: “Today’s boxes, if they were part of a mathematical equation, would not be a variable but a fixed constant, and to increase productivity, you must add to the equation by buying bigger and more expensive equipment, expanding terminals to accommodate larger and larger ships, and so the process would go on. On the other hand, the Staxxon folding container increases productivity without adding anything to the equation other than the folding and unfolding functions, the cost of which is but a small fraction of the cost to reposition a second, third, fourth, or even fifth container.”
He continued: “At the port, you move more empty containers with less equipment, you position more empty containers in less space, reducing the storage footprint in the yard, keeping up to five at ground level, thereby reducing the total number of lifts and moves. In addition, carriers typically have a fully loaded leg and a mostly empty leg and Staxxon containers not only allow for faster loading and unloading, but improved distribution of the boxes as our containers can be positioned anywhere on the ship, not just on the top of stacks.”
Danderline believes that even with port congestion easing the industry now realises that the supply chain is fragile and vulnerable to crisis events including labour actions. “The industry is also pushing for emissions reductions, which are achievable with the use of Staxxon foldable containers”, he said. “All in all, this makes for a compelling case for the industry to take a fresh look at adopting folding containers.”
But there are still challenges. Foldable containers are complicated and up to five times more expensive to build than standard dry freight boxes. They are also heavier as more steel is needed and this affects the amount of cargo that can be loaded in them, although not significantly. In addition, the moving parts, such as hinges, are more susceptible to damage, which can mean higher maintenance and repair costs and shorter trading lives. Concerns have also been expressed about their security and performance levels, particularly when it comes to insurance underwriting and loss prevention measures.
Furthermore, there are various time and safety issues when it comes to the assembly and dismantling processes, although this varies according to individual designs.
Finally, in an industry as deeply conservative as that of container shipping, new ideas always take time to be adopted, especially if they involve higher ‘upfront costs’, as folding containers inevitably do.