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The Future for Shipping Containers

On the 66th anniversary of container shipping, CakeBoxx Technologies Founder and CEO Daine Eisold explores the future for the iconic box.

Daine Eisold

Founder and CEO

Shipping Container Design

is Moving Into the Future

With each decade and new generation of technology, our world seems to move faster and faster – and businesses around the globe are in a never-ending race to keep up. To some this feels like a daunting task, but to others the challenge can be invigorating. This is especially true for those who work in industries that have “tried and true” practices which work to a certain degree but are ripe for reinvention in order to keep pace with the evolution of our global society.

The shipping industry is one such example, and, more specifically, the shipping container itself. As we approach the 66th anniversary of the first container ship’s maiden voyage on April 26th, we want to pay tribute to the revolutionary intermodal shipping container design and shipping process made possible by Malcolm McLean in 1956. Rather than looking back on the well-known origin story of the container, we want to spend some time looking ahead to the incredible innovations on the horizon that are poised to continue the evolution of the incredible shipping container.

Global Demand Leads to

Increased Innovation

We know shipping containers have not changed much in the past 66 years. Kudos to a fantastic design – there is comfort in the reliability and predictability this trusty partner brings. The ubiquitous 20ft and 40ft containers have been keeping the world turning for decades. The simple steel and plywood cube has been the global engine of growth, prosperity, and health for decades and will no doubt continue to deliver this outstanding record of service.

But, global demand has increased exponentially, and that timeless design is showing its age. It can’t keep pace with the speed, flexibility, and specialization requirements of some trade sectors, and predictably will be a less satisfying option to an increasing number of shippers. Functionally, it has been expertly and scientifically exploited by thieves, challenges employer’s operational safety and health concerns, creates vast environmental problems and most importantly, just isn’t very good at transporting so many new products with total global markets and destinations.

Of course, many people recognize these problems. It just happens to be one of those really tough problems to solve. Today’s container is ”too embedded” in trade and transportation processes. It’s too hard to change. So, what is being done?  In recent decades it has been easier to work around the edges of container-centric challenges. Industry brains spend handsome amounts of time and treasure streamlining all the systems and machinery that operates with and around the container – to make those more manageable processes better. Vessels, cranes, terminal management systems, and handling equipment have evolved significantly – honing their ability to work with the largely unchanged container.  And so, life goes on for the standard, old-reliable 20ft and 40ft long 8ft wide, 8’6” high steel drybox with the plywood floor.

Like all complex problems, there will be a tipping point where one or another aspect of our dependency on the standard container will precipitate a real shift in the product and processes around it. Maybe a global pandemic will upset the delicate balance of global supply chains, perhaps widespread hostilities, perhaps a meteorological event?

Of course, it is true that many forward-looking companies and inspired individuals are thinking of ways to implement meaningful change. Here are a few of the current initiatives ongoing to help the tired old boxes keep breathing and stay useful in today’s world:

Event Detection Sensors

Sensors have been developed to detect minute changes in gasses within a container, which can be an indicator of fire risk or other potentially hazardous changes in cargo, but which may otherwise go unnoticed from the outside. For example, lithium batteries release certain gasses before they explode, posing a significant threat to both the container and the ship that is transporting them. A lithium battery fire is incredibly challenging to control and can quickly consume almost everything in its path. The implementation of sensors inside containers can provide early warning signs so any potential fires can be prevented or contained quickly, preventing it from spreading to other containers or to the vessel itself.

Fire Prevention, Suppression and Control

Early warning of an impending event like a lithium battery fire is a great idea. What next? It would also be a reasonable goal to prevent that fire from starting, or suppressing it once it begins, or preventing it from spreading to other containers or to the vessel itself. Fires on container ships are one of the most deadly and costly events in global trade. We should invest energy in preventing and suppressing fires in shipping containers. The pushback is that the global container trade is too big – we can’t get everyone around the world to be on the same page and to use the same process, and we don’t have good, affordable "in container" solutions. All true – that is exactly the kind of problem we at CakeBoxx Technologies like to work on. And… we are!

Increasing the “Green” in Shipping Design

Since the original container design in 1956, most shipping containers have remained well within the status quo in terms of materials, weight, size, and function. But over the past six decades, technology has grown rapidly, opening the door for more innovation and creativity when it comes to sustainable design.

Steel is the most commonly used material in shipping construction because it is versatile, strong, resistant to corrosion and recyclable. Steel is also heavy – both a pro and a con design attribute. The “con” du jour is the container’s calculated lifetime impact on the environment – its carbon footprint. The heavier it is, the more energy required to build it, repair it, transport it et cetera. You can calculate this, using some number of hundreds of assumptions and variables, all of which will conclude that lighter is better, unless lighter is weaker, or lighter requires more maintenance, or lighter produces greater CO2 in its own manufacturing process, or lighter costs too much, (and what is too much anyway? Haven’t we all become a little spoiled by subsidized, mass produced container prices?). It’s another one of those tricky little problems that sounds like it might be easy to solve.

Eco-friendly materials sound like a great direction to go in. For example, we can better manage corrosion control, reduce maintenance, repair and repainting, maybe even keep the inside of the container just a bit cooler or dryer? This could add up to a largely decreased carbon footprint for a container’s 15-year life span. At CakeBoxx, we believe that shifting our focus to core container components produced from alternative materials is an obvious first step in the pursuit of net zero. But this will be a tangled web – depending on how deep the investigation goes into each component’s profile. From raw materials through manufacturing technique, operations, training, maintenance and repair and end of life management, all of this must be done, but thoroughly and without predetermined outcomes. There will be some surprise along this journey of discovery towards sustainable containers.

Automation Is Paving The Road Ahead

Automation, robots, Aiartificial intelligence (AI)… a few decades ago these words may have been associated with sci-fi novels, but today they are household terms as our society becomes more and more reliant on technology to ease burdens in our everyday lives. The shipping world has been slowly and thoughtfully moving in this direction. From the use of cobots and robots in retail distribution centers to self-driving and automated delivery vehicles, companies involved at every step of the supply chain are looking toward the future to create safer, more efficient business practices.

Modern container designs, such as the advanced deck-and-lid design from CakeBoxx, creates a critical foundational element in this move toward automation. While traditional containers have myriad restrictions due to their single point of entry and constricted spaces, the advanced CakeBoxx structure provides 360-degree front- and side-access, allowing workers and forklifts much more flexibility with how they approach the platform and load and secure cargo.

As we imagine the future, this becomes a significant enabler of automation, as self-driving or autonomous forklifts can more easily place cargo on the platform in a much shorter amount of time and with less wear-and-tear on the container. Fewer workers will be needed to maneuver inside the container and instead can quickly secure and release cargo from the external perimeter of the deck. OSHA loves this; inspection agencies like US Customs and Border Protection Officers love this; and BCO’s love this as it reduces inspection related damages, inspection cost and inspection frequency. Saving time in these activities can be directly mapped to a smaller carbon footprint.

Shipping and Beyond:

Taking Container Design Into the Next Century

Global intermodal trade is an eco-system of eco-systems. It is totally feasible, reasonable and practical to change some contributive processes along the way. But what is changed in a Singapore container yard may not work at Union Pacific’s ramp in Council Bluffs, Iowa or Walmart’s distribution center in Lancaster, Texas. Short of an epiphany, lets concede it will be an incremental journey to make meaningful CO2 footprint-impacting process and equipment changes on the road to sustainability.

But let’s not underestimate epiphanies. There is so much potential for innovation that can streamline this journey, enabling the creation of more efficient and more distributed warehouse operations centers with smaller footprints and new ways to move cargo in and out of centers quickly and into the hands of businesses and consumers. The crystal ball at CakeBoxx envisions high-speed, high-productivity drive-through distribution centers, where cargo unloading and loading happens “live”, enabled by 360-degree container unloading/loading and autonomous vehicle unloading. When the access to cargo isn’t limited to doors in the back of a container, a host of newer, faster, more efficient processes are enabled, minimizing truck idle time, and literally keeping supply chains moving forward.

This is the type of eco-system introspection is happening here at CakeBoxx and at hundreds of like-minded organizations around the world. Let’s call it ”practical innovation” – ideas that develop in the minds of experienced operators with vision and understanding. The CakeBoxx team looks forward to sharing ideas and our vision with you.

Please give us a call anytime to discuss your ideas.