18 November 2022

Spectainer’s world-first integrated collapsible containers to pioneer the future of global trade

Australian company Spectainer has invented a next-generation collapsible container that is set to change the shipping and logistics industry. The Collapsible Economic Container – known as COLLAPSECON – is a holistic, integrated solution. It collapses and combines up to 4 containers into one without cranes or manual labour. A tracking device on each container provides rich data on fleet movements and carbon emissions.

Spectainer modelling shows COLLAPSECON can potentially reduce:

  • container operating costs by between 20% to 40%
  • empty container handling costs by up to 75%
  • fuel burn by 20–30%
  • emissions from shipping by around 17%.

‘At Spectainer, our mission is to pioneer the future of global trade by creating innovative, practical and scalable solutions to evolve the shipping and logistics sector,’ says Nicholas Press, Spectainer’s Founder and Managing Director.

World’s first mass-produced collapsible containers

The idea for COLLAPSECON came to Press when he was a logistics officer with the Australian Army. While stationed overseas, he noticed huge numbers of empty shipping containers that seemed to increase every month.

‘The empty containers had a growing impact on our operational environment,’ says Press. ‘It made me realise there was a fundamental issue with how logistics and supply chains functioned.

‘The shipping container is the backbone of the global shipping industry, but it is not ultimately efficient. While COLLAPSECON is not the first-ever collapsible container, I wanted to develop a solution that improves operational efficiency, saves costs and reduces environmental impact.’

A key point of difference between COLLAPSECON and other collapsible containers is ‘separating the collapsing from the collapsible’.

Spectainer achieves this through the COLLAPSECON Operating Station (COS). The COS is a first-of-its-kind automated platform that enables users to collapse up to 4 shipping containers into one. It takes around 2 minutes to collapse or expand each container, with no manual intervention. In contrast, it can take between 20 and 30 minutes and the use of cranes and manual labour to collapse other containers.

In addition to the COS, each COLLAPSECON has a container tracking device called SEACON. The device captures real-time data to optimise fleet management. Users can monitor their containers and validate environmental data to check emission levels.

‘We did not invent the concept of collapsible containers,’ says Press. ‘What we are pioneering is a holistic integrated solution to make them work at an industrial scale. Our solution is not just well engineered, it’s also operationally efficient.’

Video: Watch the COLLAPSECON in action.

Addressing global logistics challenges

The mass accumulation of empty containers is due to the trade imbalance between production regions like China and consumption regions like Australia.

Consumption regions typically import more general cargo than they export. Instead of taking back empty containers to production regions, it is common for shipping lines to leave them behind. This is because ships will stop at multiple ports along a route to pick up cargo.

This makes vessel load-planning essential. Empty containers must go on the top tiers of the container stack to balance the ship. The containers must be moved at every port to load or unload cargo. The more time at port, the higher the costs.

It costs around US$1 a day to leave a container at a port or container park. This compares to many hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to transport it on a ship. Given these costs, many shipping firms find it more effective to simply buy new containers. The increasing number of containers has led to overloaded ports and packed container parks worldwide.

‘There are around 42 million containers in the world,’ says Press. ‘The empty container issue is costing the shipping industry over US$34 billion each year. And this cost is rising. It has reached a point where we can’t sweep the problem under a rug. It must be addressed.

‘There will always be a trade imbalance, and COLLAPSECON is not meant to replace every conventional container. What COLLAPSECON can do is help lower costs, improve operational efficiency and reduce environmental impact on heavily imbalanced trade lanes.’

A red shipping container sits on a concrete floor in an industrial building

Improving efficiency and reducing costs

The ability to collapse and combine containers frees up more space for cargo while still allowing ships to carry empty containers.

‘COLLAPSECON acts like a normal container. It fits into the space taken up by one container,’ says Press. ‘If you have slots for 1,000 containers on your ship, you could carry 500 containers full of cargo and 2,000 empty containers.’

COLLAPSECON also allows ships to operate far more efficiently at port and at sea. When COLLAPSECON is bundled together, it essentially becomes a fully laden container. It can be stored at the bottom of a ship. For the first time, ships don’t need to move empty containers stored on the deck to unload cargo. This new efficiency reduces the time at port, saving port fees.

‘Using COLLAPSECON means a ship can load 4 containers at, say, $100 per container,’ says Press. ‘This compares to one conventional container at $100 per container. Ships can load more containers in less time and at lower costs.’

Cutting the time spent at port means shipping lines can progress their routes on schedule, allowing for slow steaming. By reducing their speed from 20 to 18 knots, ships can save fuel burn by around 20–30%. This can generate a significant reduction in overall fuel consumption on each voyage. This, in turn, leads to less COproduction.

Spectainer modelling indicates COLLAPSECON can potentially help the industry reduce container operating costs by 20–40%. The cost of handling empty containers is also projected to go down by up to 75%.

Over time, improved operational efficiency might even allow shipping lines to reduce the number of vessels they operate on a trade lane.

‘By evolving the container and operations, carriers can generate more efficiency across their fleet,’ says Press. ‘They can load more containers and move faster. In the future they may not need 6 vessels on a trade lane. They may only need 5 because they are generating better vessel rotation. Over the longer term, there are significant fleet and industry-wide efficiencies to be gained.’

Reducing carbon emissions

The shipping industry is responsible for 3% of global emissions. Press believes Spectainer’s solution can help the industry meet the EU’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

Efficient ship movement can reduce carbon emissions by 17%, according to Spectainer modelling. The industry will also need fewer trucks and trains to transport COLLAPSECON from container parks to port terminals. Spectainer projects this will reduce carbon emissions by up to 37%.

‘There are a lot of variables when calculating emissions,’ cautions Press. ‘Every shipping line is different, and every trade lane is different.’

For example, based on current monthly TEU movement, Sydney exports 150,000 containers a month on the Sydney to Shanghai route. Around 68% of them are empty. Using only 1,000 COLLAPSECON on this trade lane per month can reduce emissions by a potential 79,000 tonnes a year, based on a 6,300 TEU vessel.

Using SEACON, shipping lines can identify a fleet’s geographical location, the status of each COLLAPSECON, idle time and route geo-fencing. The insights can help shippers identify the ideal trade lanes to deploy COLLAPSECON. This will help them optimise operations and efficiencies.

Team Australia driving innovation

Press started developing the COLLAPSECON concept in 2008. In 2015, he worked with UNSW engineering students to flesh out the concept. Next, he engaged Australian industrial design firm Tiller Design to expand the baseline design. By 2017, Press had built his first prototype design. He began working with A*STAR (Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research) to further test and refine the design. In 2019, Spectainer embarked on a complete upgrade of the COLLAPSECON design to enable fully automated collapsing through the COS.

In July 2022, Spectainer announced a strategic partnership with global shipbuilder Austal Limited. Under the partnership, Austal will mass produce COLLAPSECON and COS. Spectainer had secured US$75 million in construction funding (and US$2 million in development funding) from CFM’s Climate Investor Two (CI2) Development Fund (DF2) in June 2021.

Spectainer has another Australian giant as a partner. BlueScope Steel, through its ventures arm BlueScopeX™, was a major investor in Spectainer’s Series B funding round. The company is also interested in contributing to Spectainer’s supply chain and exploring joint R&D opportunities such as green steel.

‘Australia is not generally known as a major player in the global shipping space,’ says Press. ‘But we have a history of world-class innovation. As an Australian company, we are proud to be pioneering a solution to address a significant operational, economic and environmental problem.’

Exporting Australian innovation to the world with Austrade’s assistance

Spectainer will start rolling out its first COLLAPSECON fleet in 2023. The company is currently working with a number of the world’s top carriers on leasing agreements.

Austrade is supporting Spectainer as it takes its innovation global. ‘Austrade connected us to key partners in our evolution such as A*STAR in Singapore,’ says Press. ‘As we expand globally, Austrade’s insights and advice will help us better understand the complexities of doing business in specific markets.’

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