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Dutch company hopes foldable containers end intermodal inefficiency

Holland Container Innovations’ containers can be folded when empty and stacked 4 high on standard chassis

Amid sluggish freight rates and oil prices, overcapacity issues, and the Baltic Dry Index pointing to a looming slowdown in global trade growth, finding innovative ways to solve repositioning problems is now a major part of a wider effort to reduce costs in the container-shipping industry.

On average, 20% of the containers transported by sea and 40% of those transported by land are empty, according to Holland Container Innovations. HCI hopes to change that with 40-foot high, steel shipping containers that can be folded when empty, potentially reducing operational costs by 25% and harmful CO2 emissions caused by empty box repositioning by 44 million tons per year.  

“HCI was founded to find a solution to reduce costs of empty container repositioning,” says HCI Managing Director Simon Bosschieter. “This issue costs the industry over $25 billion U.S. dollars per year.”

The containers, known as 4FOLD, allow for more empty containers to be transported with the same number of trucks. Four empty, folded containers can be transported and handled as one. And a 4FOLD container can be folded or unfolded by a two-person team on the ground with standard existing equipment in less than four minutes.

“When empty, 4FOLD can be folded to 25% of the volume, and stacking four 4FOLDs together creates a bundle that can be transported and handled in the same manner as a standard container,” explains Bosschieter. “This reduces costs associated with storage, handling and transportation.”

For a typical carrier, repositioning costs represent 5% to 8% of total operating costs, according to the Boston Consulting Group. BSG also found that approximately two-thirds of all empty-container movements are a result of structural imbalances. For example, some countries, such as China, export more than they import, and as a result, carriers must inevitably transport empty containers to these countries. The remaining one-third of repositioning costs stem from carrier-specific imbalances such as delays, customers scattered among port and inland destinations, or the inability to forecast positioning needs.  

HCI’s 4FOLD containers may be able to alleviate some of these inevitable costs by increasing the utilization of equipment for trucking companies. Because empty containers generate less income than full containers, using 4FOLD, one truck could transport four empty containers, while the other three trucks become available for more revenue generating services. This increases the flexibility of trucking companies as well.  

“Trucking companies can reduce costs and save time during the backhaul stretch when operating 4FOLD by making some adjustments to their standard routine,” Bosschieter says. “For example, a normal routine consists of trailer trucks driving back and forth between the port and hinterland. When operating 4FOLD, a trucking company could transport four loaded containers per rail from the port to the hinterland and one loaded trailer by road, as they would normally do. The four containers will be unstuffed in the hinterland and subsequently folded at an inland depot/terminal. The bundle of four containers fits in the trailer which drives back to the port. The main savings are generated on the transportation cost. At the same time, there is no more need to locate paying cargo for the way back, saving effort, personnel, deprecation (4FOLD is cheaper than a truck) and efficiency.”

4FOLD also hopes to create more efficient land use in ports by reducing the amount of storage space needed for empties, as well as influence social aspects like noise pollution, esthetics, and city development.

Furthermore, the foldable containers may also be a sustainable solution for the industry, as a reduction in empty transport could mean a reduction in emissions such as CO2, NOx, and PM10. According to HCI, transport with a 40-foot container causes on average an emission of 600 tons CO2 per year. The average emission reduction with 4FOLD is an estimated 28 tons of CO2 per year, or about 5%. At sea, 4FOLD can create a reduction of 27% on total CO2 emissions.

“The use of 4FOLD will also increase the sustainable image of trucking companies,” Bosschieter added. “This can be used as a valuable marketing tool as well.”

Based in the Netherlands, Holland Container Innovations was founded in 2008 and began working on its first foldable container prototype in 2009. The company is a spinoff from the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, and it is co-funded by the European Union. In 2016 the EU included HCI in the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program, which supports the environmental benefits of 4FOLD. CARU Containers has a stake in HCI, and acts as the preferred leasing partner for the containers.

4FOLD is the first ISO and CSC certified foldable 40-foot HC maritime container, and at the moment it is the only foldable container on the market, it says. HCI is working with China’s CXIC Group to build the containers, and is now working on a redesign that will cost less to produce. The containers are produced in China and available for sale or lease all over the world.

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