The transport and world trade revolution began in April of 1956 when Malcolm McLean, an ingenious U.S. inventor, sent a converted WW2 tanker from New Jersey to Houston, carrying
fifty-eight 35-foot containers on board. That fired the starting pistol for the triumphant success of the steel boxes. Decades later, the air freight industry followed suit, creating its own
What had once been a simple steel box to quickly unload ships and aircraft has now developed into a technically sophisticated product, as witnessed visiting the German ULD manufacturer DoKaSch.
Figures are buzzing around the room; different material characteristics and functional properties are described and compared. Marcus Franke makes every effort to explain the technical and
operational specifications of each transport box series better known as unit load devices (ULDs) built by DoKaSch GmbH. It’s a universe all its own, the company’s head of sales exclusively guides
CargoForwarder Global through, needing full concentration to not lose track.
But no matter how complicated the matter of developing, building and supporting the daily utilization of air freight containers might ultimately be, basically it comes down to expertise, skills, foresight and a high degree of market knowledge to not only produce those ‘boxes’ according to market demand but have the right solutions on hand that closely fit the daily operational needs of airlines and large ULD managing companies like Jettainer or CHEP.
Wide service spectrum
Nevertheless, manufacturing ULDs like the members of the large LD and MD families fitting the upper and lower aircraft decks is just one side of the coin. DoKaSch’s service spectrum is much broader, ranging from maintenance and repair services, spare part supplies and related offers, summarized under the term “total cost of ownership” – TCO. This covers all expenses during the life circle of a container, expected to last at least 10 years, states Mr. Franke. He wonders why only a limited number of market players are really dealing with TCO since the purchase price of the ULDs is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to owning and operating containers. “It seems many of them view ULDs just as a commodity which shows me that they lack clear cost transparency.”
Cool containers as life savers
Today, the days where containers were just a tool to bundle a large amount of cargo into a single unit, leading to fewer units to load, saving ground crews’ time and preventing flights delays are long gone.
They have developed into highly sophisticated items fitting the different needs of the cargo industry. Sending temperature sensitive blood plasma from one continent to another, vaccines or proteins such as insulin would be extremely risky without special transport boxes maintaining a constant interior temperature for two days or more, just to name a few - and this doesn’t seem to be the end of the line!
Lightweights are fast gaining ground
Founded by the original shareholders Werner Dommermuth, Heinz Peter Kaminski, and Manfred Schneider in 1989, DoKaSch has developed into one of the leading and most innovative producers of standard unit load devices (ULDs) and specialized containers. A practical example is the aptly named production series of different containers called ‘Opticooler,’ which safely accommodate and transport temperature sensitive items according to specific requirements for goods like pharmaceuticals, medicine, dairy products or fresh fish.
Particularly lightweight containers made of different synthetic fibers, instead of aluminum, have experienced a huge upturn lately. The trend is towards nearly ‘metal free’ solutions, which weigh less than 60 kilograms per unit. Every kilogram saved reduces the carrier’s fuel burn, prevents unnecessary spending and improves their CO2 footprint.
Below 50 kilogram box remains being a dream
“We are seeing a clear demand by a growing number of airlines for lightweights in the range of 50 kilograms, particularly in Asia,” asserts Marcus but not without adding that there is a limit to reducing weight, based on the physics of the materials used to produce the boxes. “They need to be extremely stable and durable, guaranteeing permanent usage for many years, sustain extreme heat and cold and must easily be repairable should they get damaged.” Indeed a difficult task to accomplish, not only for DoKaSch … a bit reminiscent of squaring the circle.
Due to these crucial parameters, the less than 50 kilogram lightweight is highly unlikely to go into service anytime soon. It might happen one day since man-made synthetic fibers, like the large group of polymers, are continuously being developed further, as seen in the industry.
“I personally think that in terms of TCO a sustainable 55-58 kilogram air freight container LD3 is where we and other developers are currently heading towards,” Marcus confesses.
Integrators have become major customers
In addition to traditional cargo carriers or large ULD managers that run the entire pallet and container biz on behalf of their mandate airlines there are the integrators that come into the picture more and more. It’s a group of clients whose biz is constantly growing. Accordingly, they need additional ULDs to safeguard the transportation of their packages and parcels. For example, DHL Express alone manages a pool of several ten thousands of containers and pallets. “They are one of our customers who we are in constant exchange with to further improve our product based on their experience gained through daily operation.”
This led to a number of product enhancements like covering zippers closing the loading slots of the lightweights with an overlapping flap. It’s just a minor improvement but one that prevents moisture from getting inside during loading and unloading of the aircraft when it is raining, dousing and spoiling the shipments.
“Technical improvements of our products are our daily business in addition to working on new ULDs,” says Marcus. A job, DoKaSch’s engineers are responsible for securing the future of the company as well as their jobs.
The day to day activities are still in line with the vision of Malcolm McLean, the “father of containerization,” who modernized the loading and unloading of vehicles by using containers, resulting in the safe and less-costly transport of goods, faster delivery, and improved service.
Heiner Siegmund / Michael Taweel