In 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported on foldable shipping containers (you may need to subscribe to WSJ to access this) and I posted a blog entry on IBM’s site on this topic.

As a quick summary, the main benefit of a foldable container is in more efficiently moving empty containers.  The empty containers must be moved around because their is not an exact match of supply and demand.  The ports that collect the empty containers are not necessarily the ones the have demand for empty containers.

Without a folding container, the empty containers use as much space as a full one (but weigh less).  The quote from the article is telling:

“It’s a huge expense, a huge headache for the industry,” says Neil Davidson of London-based Drewry Shipping Consultants. The net cost of moving empties is around $7 billion a year, say analysts.

This is a nice case of using design and optimization together to solve a problem.   The foldable container designs away some of the $7 billion cost.

With or without the foldable containers, firms use optimization to help minimize the cost of getting the containers to where they need to be.

This problem pops up in anywhere where you have a closed-loop supply chain.  You need to be able to get the empty or used product back where it is needed.