NEWARK – George Kochanowski was driving from Florida to Philadelphia in 2002 when something caught his eye.Passing by the Port of Baltimore on Interstate 95, he saw stacks of shipping containers and on the radio, the mayor was discussing how the port couldn’t stack them higher than three units to prevent an eyesore.
[caption id="attachment_222747" align="alignleft" width="500"] Childhood friends George Kochanowski, left, and Richard Danderline may have invented a substantial improvement in global shipping. They're trying to find customers from their Newark demo space. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN[/caption]
When he returned to Florida, Kochanowski had an attorney search for collapse or foldable container patents. There weren’t many and what there was collapsed vertically.“I'm going, ‘Well, that'll never work,’ because you've got to be able to stack these up and deal with a lot of weight,” he recalled. “I couldn't figure out why the industry wasn't pursuing the optimization of the flow of empty containers.”Right now, nearly 80% of the containers leaving U.S. ports are empty, limiting the opportunity for American exporters and adversely contributing to carbon emissions. Nearly a decade after tinkering with the idea, Kochanowski and childhood friend Richard Danderline, a fashion industry executive, launched Staxxon, a startup that produced a prototype container that can be folded horizontally while maintaining its strength.Alan Amling, a fellow at the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s Global Supply Chain Institute and a 27-year veteran of UPS, called the idea “revolutionary.”“I have not seen that for an ocean container,” he said.The designAt its simplest form, the Staxxon container doesn’t seem to embrace any revolutionary thinking or materials – in fact, much of it is already commercially available. It harnesses basic mechanics and physics to maintain its integrity and shape when fully deployed and can be “folded” in about 15 minutes with as few as two or three workers with a forklift.That reality belies the years of tinkering and design that Kochanowski, a veteran chemical engineer and part-time inventor who once created reflective plastic traffic signs, put into the Staxxon container. He’s obtained 38 patents covering every facet of the container from the hinges to the floor and secured those product protections not only in the U.S. but also in the European Union and in China.The entrepreneurs are quick to note that other companies have invented “collapsible” containers that drop vertically to save space, but theirs in the first model known to “fold” horizontally. That allows them to compress anywhere from two to five containers in the same 20-foot equivalent unit, or TEU, that is commonplace in all oceangoing shipping and allows standard cranes and trucks to move them.“With the collapsible containers, they can't variable collapse. It’s all or nothing,” Danderline explained. “So, if they are designed to have five containers to fit the footprint and you don't have five, you have to wait. Whereas we can take two, three, four or five and move on.”Kochanowski’s design has also managed to maintain its shape once packed, with their tests pushing 127,000 pounds with barely any floor deflection detected. The global maximum gross weight per container is only 71,000 pounds.Potential job boomThe duo ended up in the First State due to some lobbying – one of the investors in an earlier venture by Danderline happened to be Dover Republican State Sen. Colin Bonini’s uncle. When they launched Staxxon, he invested again and Bonini joined himself a few years ago.Originally based in New Jersey, the startup has moved its prototypes and offices to Newark and is operating out of a warehouse owned by local mechanical contractor M. Davis & Sons.
[caption id="attachment_222746" align="alignright" width="300"] When folded, up to five Staxxon containers could take the place of one normal 20-foot container, like these seen at the Port of Wilmington. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
Kochanowski sees great potential to grow Staxxon in the Delaware area, with the ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia capable of handling more cargo, a history of steel production west of Philadelphia and a number of steel fabricators looking for work in the region.Currently, about 95% of the world’s shipping containers are made by three Chinese companies that are ostensibly state-owned and subsidized, according to a March report by a Federal Maritime Commission official. That disrupts the global market and keeps buyers dependent on Chinese units.“Unlike the Chinese model where everything has to be done under one roof in order for them to be efficient, we could piecemeal production of locking rods, sidewalls, doors, etc., and they could all be shipped to the Port of Wilmington on flatbed trucks where we’d do the final assembly and put them out on the ocean,” Kochanowski said.Staxxon estimates that if it could capture just 16% of the global market, it could produce upward of 50,000 jobs directly related to the production, assembly and shipping of the containers. They intend to license the technology and brand to cargo owners and shipping lines, working to approved contractors to deliver the product.Non-commercial benefits tooWhile Staxxon’s advantages could save a boatload in company costs, it also could make shipping cleaner, safer and more useful.Danderline explained that if empty containers could be loaded and unloaded faster, then ships could move slower on the ocean instead of burning extra fuel to make up for lost time. It would also mean fewer ships would be needed to move thousands of extra container units across the ocean.“We've been told it may be the greenest project out there, because if you could take just six of these ships off the waters, it would be the equivalent of taking about 44 million cars off the road,” Kochanowski said.
[caption id="attachment_222745" align="alignleft" width="300"] The Staxxon box can be folded in as little as 15 minutes with just two to three workers using a forklift. | DBT PHOTOS BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
Loading five containers per tractor-trailer could also take four trucks burning fuel and creating additional noise pollution off the road as well. That could ease congestion around ports and lessen the impact on roads nationwide.Last year, the company also patented the inclusion of weight-detection instruments in the Staxxon unit, which could tell a truck driver that a load shifted, or alert Homeland Security of unauthorized weight additions, or cargo owners of potential theft. It’s the small amount of flex in the floor that makes that possible, something a normal container couldn’t offer.“Another big issue these days is having people smuggled in what are otherwise thought to be empty containers, but if you have five of our containers folded together, you can be pretty sure there are no people in there,” Danderline said. “The threat of terrorists putting bombs in the containers would be reduce too by folding the units.”One of the major non-shipping uses of 20-foot containers has been as shelter following natural disasters.“FEMA shelters spend 90% of their life stored away, so we can reduce the footprint where they need to store those things by 80%,” Danderline said. “And George has even made it so that our roof can fold upward to create a traditional pitch roof, giving you more headroom.”Market challenges benefitsThe potential savings for companies are almost too hard to enumerate. Bundles of containers means less stacking on ships, resulting in less wind drag and lesser fuel costs; it also means containers are moved faster and packed with goods more often; it means fewer trucks have to be deployed to move them and fewer gate fees paid to enter ports; and it means easier and faster repair of damaged containers.“When a ship comes in with 12 loaded containers right now, by contract it has to leave with 10 empties, which only leaves room for two that have material in them. Doing it our way, you could fold 10 empties to take two slots, and you now have 10 slots for laden cargo,” Kochanowski explained.Amling, of the Global Supply Chain Institute, agreed that would be a major benefit to the world’s movement of goods.“It's not that we don't have the containers, they're just not in the right place. If you're able to get more containers on a ship to get them in the right place … that makes a lot of sense,” he said.With all those benefits in mind, why hasn’t the idea hit the ground running?In part because moving the massive $14 trillion global shipping industry is about as easy as turning a ship in the ocean laden with 20,000 containers. For the shipping companies, they get paid whether the units are full or empty and buying containers almost solely from Chinese manufacturers is the easiest and cheapest solution.The Staxxon box, which has more steel components, will cost more than a standard container. But the company estimates that the savings on that investment would recoup the extra cost in less than a year.“The interest level is very, very high, but people have invested billions of dollars in assets,” Kochanowski said.“Really right now, a lot of the interest and potential demand is actually coming from the end users of the containers and not the container ship companies,” Danderline added. “Now it's really more of a bottom-up approach in terms of our demand.”They’ve found that exporters are becoming more vocal about their needs and could pressure the shipping lines to speed up investments in such beneficial technology. Some of the biggest U.S. retailers, including Home Depot, Costco and Walmart, have also started chartering their own ships as those from global shippers like MSC, Maersk, CMA CGM, Evergreen and more, clog major ports.Staxxon is preparing to launch a pilot program this year where it will loan out dozens of units to companies to see the benefits for themselves, with the hope of beginning commercial sales next year.“As we sit here today, now in an era when there's a shipping crisis and port congestion problems throughout the world, we potentially have a solution that will save the environment, save time, save money, reduce port congestion, and add jobs,” Danderline said.