The Case for Microcontainerization

I think I just invented a word.  There is exactly one result on Google for the term “microcontainerization”.  For the last 9 months, I’ve been studying urban freight movement with a team of fellow NYU transportation planners.  We set up time-lapse cameras, interviewed shopkeepers and delivery truck drivers, and tried to understand the inefficiencies and externalities of getting things delivered in dense urban areas.

I also recently read The Box, an amazing book about the rise of containerization in international shipping over the last half-century.  The book chronicles the replacement of breakbulk (or loose) shipping with highly automated and standardized containers.  Breakbulk ships would take days or weeks to load, with each cargo in a different container.  Some would be on palettes, some in barrels, some in crates, etc.  Breakbulk freight would take an army of stevedores (and a lot of time and money) to load and unload at each end of a sea journey.

containers arriving  at the Brunei Container Port are being piled up.Containerization changed the game, allowing a ship to be loaded and unloaded quickly with the help of dockside container cranes.  Entire ships can be unloaded in a matter of hours with only a handful of workers.  Containers are standardized, meaning the ships, cranes, truck trailers, railroad cars, and yard equipment that carry and handle them are also standardized.  Any container can be handled in any container port, anywhere in the world.  This has made international shipping much less expensive, and created the global supply chains that businesses thrive on.

The simple question is this:  Why are we still using a breakbulk freight system at the truck level?

Last Mile DeliveryTake a peek inside the back of a box truck and you’ll see breakbulk freight.  Loose boxes and packages.  Maybe you’ll see some palettes, maybe you’ll see some milkcrates or “totes” (plastic bins often used by drugstores and other places that sell lots of small items).  But, when it comes to the delivery, the boxes must be manually unloaded from their position during movement, possibly lowered to street level on a lift gate, then manually loaded onto hand trucks.  There are big boxes, small boxes, tubes, crates, cartons, totes, shrinkwrapped conglomerates, and parcels of every shape and size.

The truck is just a box, to be loaded as efficiently as possible based on the day’s load and delivery pattern.  The lift gate is just a rectangular platform, and the hand truck is just an L-shaped metal contraption with rubber wheels.  All of these are designed to carry anything you can throw at them, the small-scale equivalent of breakbulk freight ships.  Couldn’t we make freight more efficient on this small scale by coming up with a microcontainerization standard?

The concept I propose is a system of standardized small containers.  These could be durable or single-use, or somewhere in between, but standardized so that their loading and unloading could be automated.  I’ll bullet out a few ideas below:

  • The base unit could be a cube, but even multiples of the base dimensions could also exist.  Say our base cube is 24″x24″x24″ (I know, we should go metric), we could also have a double height container (24″x24″x48″) or triple height for longer items (24″x24″x72″).  A larger cube could double all dimensions of the base unit(48″x48″x48″).
  • Standard attachment points – containers could be linked together at their corners, and can be pushed, pulled, and lifted by standardized material handling equipment (MHE).
  • Transshipment could be easier – imagine a tractor trailer full of standard microcontainers with a built-in mini-crane.  Goods could be transferred directly to smaller trucks for last-mile delivery.
  • Flatbed trucks, or trucks with some kind of central support system could be used for microcontainers.  With box trucks, the only way in or out is through the back.
  • Faster deliveries – with mini-cranes and other standardized MHE, curbside dwell times could be reduced.
  • Recycling – the same cubes that brought goods could be used on the trash/recycling side as well.  The same trucks that bring containerized goods could haul containerized trash.  Containers could be washed and sterilized at a central location and put back into the supply chain.
  • Freight pipelines – It doesn’t take a freight train on a standard gauge railroad to efficiently move freight long distances.  Microcontainerization could also support miniature automated freight railroads, or pipelines.  A freight pipeline between Manhattan and New Jersey would eliminate tens of thousands of trucks trips that clog the Hudson River crossings, for example.
  • Loadshares – When available space is expressed in standardized units, loadshare can be more efficient.  “I have 4 Base Cube Equivalent spaces available on my truck, headed to L.A.  $100 per BCE, $5 per pound”
  • Intermodal movement – hand trucks, freight tricycles, electric vans, light trucks, heavy trucks… goods could be easily transferred between vehicles.

So, what do you think?  Would this kind of system work?  Could it work?  What would it take to implement?  Leave a comment below!

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