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Collapsible shipping container

FLAT PACK
Mar 4th 2010, The Economist

Transport: A collapsible shipping container could help reduce the
environmental impact of transporting goods

OVERHAULING an industry of which you know little is not easy, but
neither is it impossible. In 1956 Malcolm McLean, a trucker from North
Carolina, launched the first "intermodal" shipping container, which
could be transferred easily between lorries, trains and ships. It
revolutionised the transport of goods by abolishing the traditional
(and back-breaking) system of "break bulk" loading, and thus helped oil
the wheels of globalisation. Now another outsider to the shipping
industry is trying to get a similar change under way.

Rene Giesbers, a heating-systems engineer from the Netherlands, has
invented a collapsible plastic shipping container which, he hopes, will
replace McLean's steel design. Because it is made of a fibreglass
composite, it weighs only three-quarters as much as a standard
container but--more importantly-- when empty, it can be folded down to
a quarter of its size. The composite is more resistant to corrosion
than the steel it replaces, is easier to clean and floats. It is also
greener to manufacture. Making one of the new containers produces 25%
of the carbon dioxide that would be generated by the manufacture of its
steel counterpart.

A collapsible shipping container would be useful for several reasons.
Patterns of trade mean that more goods travel from China to America,
for example, than the other way around, so ships, trains and lorries
inevitably carry some empty containers. If these were folded, there
would be more room for full containers and some vessels would be
liberated to ply different routes. If collapsed containers were bundled
together in groups of four, ships could be loaded more quickly, cutting
the time spent in ports. They would also take up less space on land,
allowing depots to operate more efficiently.

Mr Giesbers is not the first to invent a collapsible container. Several
models were experimented with in the early 1990s but failed to catch
on, mainly because of the extra work involved in folding and unfolding
them. There were also concerns about their strength. Mr Giesbers says
the Cargoshell, as he has dubbed his version, can be collapsed or
opened in 30 seconds by a single person using a forklift truck. It is
now undergoing tests to see if it is strong enough to meet
international standards.

There are currently about 26m containers in the world, and the volume
of goods they carry has risen from 13.5m "twenty-foot equivalent units"
in 1980 to almost 140m today. It is expected to reach 180m by 2015. Mr
Giesbers aims to have 1m Cargoshells plying the seas, rails and roads
by 2020, equivalent to 4% of the market.

Bart Kuipers, a harbour economist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam,
thinks that is a little ambitious, but he reckons the crate could win
2-3% of the market. He thinks it is the container's lower weight,
rather than its collapsibility, that makes it attractive. It will
appeal to firms worried about their carbon footprints--and if oil
prices rise, that appeal will widen.

Ultimately, the main obstacle to the introduction of the Cargoshell may
be institutional rather than technical. As Edgar Blanco, a logistics
expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, points out,
"Everyone is vested in the current system. Introducing a disruptive
technology requires a major player to take a huge risk in adopting it.
So the question will always boil down to: who pays for the extra cost,
and takes the initial risk?"

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