Fusebox EPFL


Smart Freight Containers

Ever since it’s invention in 1956, the steel container has arguably done more for global trade than every trade agreement signed in the past 50 years. After the publication of the ISO standards for containers between 1968 and 1970 it has proven itself as a medium for safe, efficient and secure storage and movement of materials and products within the global intermodal freight transport system. About seventeen million containers of varying types exemplify this story of success. Meanwhile a broad variety of containers, including units with controlled atmosphere or refrigerated units, have found their way to the market, allowing the transport of almost any good imaginable, including perishable goods such as food.

However there still remain problems to be addressed: Containers are made of steel, making them robust and affordable, but also very heavy and difficult to handle during quality inspections or customs controls. 

Hence, a large share of global food loss is happening on the long journey between the place of production and target market, leading to a waste of resources and transport capacity. Pinning down the cause and timing of a food decay during this journey remains impossible - it is a “Black-Box problem”.

Many containers have already been fitted with sensors that monitor this, but these need power and satellite or mobile phone connections to work, making them unfeasible for the regular use with relatively invaluable food cargos.

A possible solution for this could be the development of a “Black-Box”-device containing piezoelectric elements which power sensors for moisture, temperature and vibrations which in turn collect data about the cargo condition during transport. When the cargo arrives at a harbor, airport or truck cross-docking, low-powered wireless networks would transfer the cargo condition to the distributor who then can make responsive choices about what will happen next to the cargo instead of just passing it on.

To give an example: A charge of bananas from Brazil, which has experienced strong exposure to sunlight and agitation, is sold directly to markets near the harbor in Portugal instead of being loaded to trucks heading to Germany - a transport after which the cargo would not be in a sellable condition.

One possible approach would be a simple box which is installed to already existing steel containers. Another would be the complete redesign of the container, using carbon fiber instead of steel making it substantially lighter, or incorporating smart materials which allow passive cooling or moisture adjustment. Collapsable units could reduce deadweight losses along the supply chain... possibilities seem endless.

I am looking forward to your inputs and constructive feedback!

edited on Mar 20, 2014 by Florian Oberhauser

Nadina - Buhler Expert Mar 20, 2014

I like your clever idea,  simple yet effective. I could imagine data from the sensors could also be linked directly to the quality control... 

Andreas Baumann Mar 21, 2014

I see potential for this very well thought through idea. In my opinion it is also linked to the idea of bioengineered packaging, that can tell the true expiration date. Your idea just settles earlier in the value chain. The conatiners could even give an alarm if something is wrong.

One question: How would you power your sensors?

Florian Oberhauser Mar 21, 2014

Thank you very much for your feedback!

@Nadina: Yes I think the data could be used in many ways. As you said for the immediate quality control which allows the distributor to easily gather data about the condition of the cargo. But in the long run it also allows deeper diagnostics on when and how spoilage happens during transport, allowing optimizations of this process.

@Andreas: Concerning the power supply I have read that it is possible to use the piezoelectric effect, by which certain materials generate an electric current when stressed. For example the swinging of a floating ship could charge a small battery which then gives steady power supply.

Leila Ojjeh Mar 21, 2014

Status changed to INTERESTING
Buhler experts found this idea very well thought through. It would be interesting to see, what exactly to measure and for which goods. Well done!

Cédric Liardet Mar 21, 2014

Fantastic idea! The container has a lot of potential improvement.

The black box idea is clever. Maybe, its colour should change according to the conditions of the food inside (as for the bioengineered packaging) in order to deliver the principal information as directly as possible when the cargo arrives....if not the whole box, at least a light bulb. Even better, the color should be visible from outside, for an easier distribution at the harbour or airport: containers with red light would be stored in a different place than containers with a green light. Like that the next distributor would immediately know which containers need a different answer. Or would it cost too much energy to display this color system?

Pascal Waldvogel Mar 21, 2014

Great idea Florian.

@florian I think the black box is more feasible than a complete redesign of the container, at least short term. Imagine all the stakeholders involved when redesigning a container, from the user, shipyard, sea-transporter, land transporter just to name a few. This adds a lot of complexity. But equipping a food container with a simple black box does not! 

@tedroc: Your input with the color is interesting and bold. In my opinion, RFID technology from the blackbox would be enough to transmit the "state" of the decay. Especially with the going automation of the hubs and M2M communication, it will be cheaper and more effective than using visual cues like color or light bulbs. 

Looking forward to hear more


Maurice Peterli Mar 21, 2014

I really like the idea of the blackbox!

Although I think the cheapest containers on the asian markets are arround 500$ and I believe it's impossible to come somewhere near that price with carbon fiber containers (or simmilar materials). Also they will not be as durable as ones made of steel.

Celia HERGUETA Mar 21, 2014

Great idea!! I was thinking myself of containers, how they can help reducing the food waste in the logistics, but your idea is much better. Congrats!

Leila Ojjeh Mar 21, 2014

This idea has been advanced to the next phase

Leila Ojjeh May 5, 2014

Status changed to WINNER
Congratulations to Florian Oberholzer, Andreas Lauper, Xavier Gil and Maurice Peterli for their presentation and great performance... They even presented a prototype! The Executive Board believes this idea has great potential but the business model still needs more work to clarify the benefit for each stakeholder.