Thinking Outside and Beyond the Box: Let’s Reinvent the Shipping Container

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November 27, 2012


– By Tom Stitt

Is it time for Marc Levinson to publish a sequel to The Box, his classic story of how the shipping container – now 56 years old – enabled global trade? Perhaps the passing of Keith Tantlinger in 2011, the brilliant engineer who invented most of the key elements of the shipping container, is another reason to generate innovative thinking about shipping containers.

An article appeared this week in the print version of WorldCargo News about various innovative concepts for making empty shipping containers (and the air inside) less costly to move and lift. Full disclosure: I work for one of the companies mentioned in the article and was interviewed and quoted in the article.

Saving the container shipping industry billions of dollars each year in operating costs related to empty shipping container moves and lifts would be a good thing for the cash-strapped container shipping industry. Potential land-side sustainability benefits at marine and inland terminals from reducing empty lifts and moves could help drive support instead of resistance for upgrades to port infrastructure. And giant post-Panamax ships with +15K TEU container capacities arriving in 2013 are going to require huge improvements in container lift productivity, especially at ports in the USA.

Sure, spending less time and money moving and lifting empty shipping containers may help the financials for the container industry. But it won’t solve some fundamental problems facing the industry.

We need a forum for frank and open dialog about innovation and invention that will give the venerable shipping container another 60 years of life. We need everyone in on the conversation – from captains and crews of ships to the dockworkers and captains of industry as well as those creating new uses for shipping containers. We need to set aside all the “it can’t be changed” assumptions about containerized shipping, many of which seem to predate the internet, real-time mobile information technology and the ever-rising cost of fuel.

We also need to recognize that Tantlinger’s classic shipping container design has been permanently extended for non-shipping uses like housing, defense, storage, food production, energy, information technology and retail stores. I’m sure there will be more creative uses of containers in the years to come.

We need to starting thinking about containerized shipping as a critical component of the global ecosystem instead of being a loved and hated replacement for bulk shipping.

Who do you think should lead the effort to reinvent the shipping container? How can we follow in the footsteps of Keith Tantlinger and create the next generation of shipping containers?

Tom Stitt is a co-founder and head of marketing at Staxxon, a startup focused on dynamic shipping container technology. Most recently, he moderated a short session at SXSW Eco 2012 with Jonathan Wichmann, head of social media at Maersk Line, titled Shipping, Social & Sustainability: What Works?

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