A potentially huge development in shipping containers


As we’ve discussed in recent weeks, one of the biggest problems in dealing with supply chain issues is where to store emptied shipping containers and how to move them from where they’ve been unloaded, back to US ports, and thence back across the Pacific to China to be loaded with more goods.  There are literally hundreds of thousands of shipping containers effectively stuck in limbo in this country, because there aren’t enough road and rail vehicles available to move them to the ports, and not enough space on container ships to take them back overseas.  Meanwhile, they occupy space at their point of delivery that’s desperately needed (but can’t be used) to offload more containers, thus slowing down every aspect of the supply chain.

However, what if the space taken up by emptied containers could be drastically reduced?  Some container manufacturers think they’ve found a way to do that.

As ports, rail yards and warehouses get clogged up with the standardized metal boxes both empty and full of goods, the stars are aligning for a product that was a hard sell before the pandemic: shipping containers that fold up accordion- or collapsible-style to as much as one-fifth their usual size. At least, that’s what their backers are hoping.

. . .

“We can solve part of this imbalance, or at least the inefficiency of transporting air,” said Hans Broekhuis, chief executive officer at Holland Container Innovations Nederland BV, known as 4Fold.

In 2013, 4Fold’s 40-foot metal boxes became the first foldable units to get certification from the Container Safety Convention and International Organization for Standardization, among others, meeting standards required by shipping lines, terminals and rail companies. More than 15 carriers and shippers navigating 60 ports worldwide are testing the Delft, Netherlands-based company’s environmentally friendly containers that can be folded into a quarter of their volume, taking up less space on trucks, ships and docks.

These benefits saw Jim Hagemann Snabe, chairman of the world’s largest shipping line, A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, refer to foldable containers as the “dream of the shipping industry” last year. At the same time, consumer-goods producers including Procter & Gamble Co. are also testing the technology.

. . .

As companies find themselves more pressed to find answers to supply-chain snarls, the trade-offs of investing in a new technology might become smaller, said Santtu Seppala, chief strategy officer at the foldable-container company Staxxon LLC. After its 20-foot containers gained full certification at the height of the pandemic, the Montclair, New Jersey-based firm is planning to put them on the market next year. The company has dozens of potential buyers who’ve indicated interest, he said.

“Our solution would not only help greatly to alleviate the current crisis, but we’d also go a long way in preventing a similar crisis from occurring in the future,” Seppala said.

There’s more at the link, including a photograph of empty, folded containers, allowing you to compare their size to the conventional containers behind them.

It’s hard to exaggerate what a huge saving in space (and cost) this would be for both customers and shippers.  If a folding container could be reduced in bulk by, say, 75%, it would allow four of them to be stored in the space currently taken up by a single non-foldable, conventional container.  That would drastically reduce the space taken up by empties at points of delivery, and also allow four times as many empties to be loaded aboard container transports (road, rail or ship).  It would be a game-changer.

The big question, of course, is whether folding containers will be as strong and durable as conventional units, and whether shipping companies will make the necessary adaptations to their equipment to take advantage of them.  Right now, every mode of transportation is so choked up that I’m not sure vehicles and ships could be taken out of circulation for long enough to modify them.

Nevertheless, this is potentially a game-changer in the transportation business.  I’ll be watching developments with great interest.  My only question is, if such containers have been available since 2013, why aren’t more of them already in use?  Are they much more expensive than conventional units, and/or are there problems with them that haven’t been publicized?  I’d like to know more.  If any readers can shed light on the subject, please tell us in Comments.



  1. The cost savings is not that great. The ships have to return to China and other East Asian countries anyway to pick up the next load, and since there are less goods being shipped from the US to China than vice versa, then the ships will just be less than fully loaded if the containers are collapsible. See the freight rates from Central Mexico to the border and from the border to the manufacturing areas of the US for examples. I can ship one way from TN to MEX for a lot less than I can ship one way from MEX to TN. Because a lot of empty returnables that collapse are going back to MEX at 3x density of containers.

  2. What incentive does China have for using such containers?
    How would they be shipped to China to be filled with goods?

  3. My estimate, without doing research, is that they would be structurally weaker, more expensive, and heavier, than traditional containers.
    The weaker part would mean that they couldn't be stacked as high in ships, which would reduce the load a ship could carry, which would be a big disincentive on its own, let alone when added to higher costs, both initial and for ongoing maintenance.
    Also, they would be MUCH harder to seal well, which is a problem when shipping across salt water.

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