We keep it small Innovation
24 November 2019, last update 15 September 2022

How a revolutionary container will solve the global imbalance in ULDs

ULD imbalance solutions

International trade is bigger than ever, and it’s still growing. Last year, an estimated 61.2 million metric tons of air freight was transported around the world. That’s equivalent to about 200 Empire State Buildings. Even the current pandemic is unlikely to put the brakes on continued growth (at least, not in the long run).

From an economic point of view, this is great news. However, growth is not without its own set of problems. Rising demand for air transportation requires large numbers of Unit Load Devices (ULDs) to protect cargo and keep planes safe. ULDs are used on countless different trade lanes, but this has resulted in an unwelcome imbalance in the global ULD fleet. And it’s a problem that is worsening significantly over time.


The stark choice between storing and returning empty containers

The imbalance in the global ULD fleet is concerning for many countries. In the U.S.A. for example, there is often a surplus of ULDs, while in China there is frequently a shortage. One reason for this development is the imbalance in supply and demand between the two countries. The demand for Chinese products is greater in the U.S.A. than the demand for American products in China, which means many more ULDs are going east to west.

Of course, it’s not only trade lanes between countries that are suffering an imbalance; trade lanes between companies are facing the same issue, too. Around 20% of trade flow is imbalanced, according to air cargo calculations. Until recently, the options of what to do with empty ULDs has had more negative than positive consequences. If you choose to store them, you have them on hand when needed, but you’re paying a lot of money for the convenience. Storage space at airports is both scarce and expensive.

In this scenario, both the sender and the receiver are adding unwittingly to the ever-increasing imbalance. It’s understandable though. Returning your empty ULDs is extremely costly (if by air) or extremely time consuming (if by sea). Likewise, expanding your ULD fleet at a time when air freight is growing is a costly alternative. Companies find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The perfect remedy to an age-old problem

Fortunately, there is now a solution. Designers and engineers at VRR have found a way for ULD fleet managers to save time and money and reduce capital expenditure. The solution is a collapsible uld that can carry the same volume of products as a standard container but reduce its size significantly when empty.

Fleet managers can now have their containers exactly where they need to be. When transported in its collapsed state, a collapsible container is only 255mm (10”) high and can be stacked up to four units high on a B737F main deck and up to seven high on the lower deck of a wide-body aircraft. This not only saves time and money when repositioning ULDs but also helps to:

  • rebalance ULD fleets for countries and companies
  • maximise storage facilities at airports (stacks up to seven high)
  • make the loading and unloading of empty ULDs much easier (no disassembly)
  • leave more floor space in cargo holds for full ULDs
  • reduce capital expenditure requirements (fewer ULDs needed)
  • decrease the environmental impact of returning empty ULDs

Reducing space without sacrificing volume

Designing a container to perfectly fit a plane’s main or lower deck is nothing new, but at VRR we’ve discovered new techniques on how to reduce the container’s size without having to sacrifice any volume. These techniques, which can be applied to different type of containers, do not affect the container’s capacity, but they do allow the container to become much smaller when it’s time to return it to the fleet. The ability to return up to seven ULDs in a space normally taken up by just one container is incredibly efficient.

Thanks to these new engineering techniques, fleet managers now have a simpler, cheaper and swifter option for relocating their ULDs. Returning collapsible containers is up to seven times cheaper than returning standard containers by air. And while returning containers by sea may seem like a cheap option, it is incredibly time consuming. It’s not unusual to wait several weeks before containers arrive. What’s more, it’s not uncommon for containers to be misplaced after docking, which wastes even more time.

Less capital expenditure and more sustainable: what’s not to like?

If you’re concerned that a collapsible container might require specialist equipment or additional labour and maintenance, don’t be. Two people can erect or collapse the containers in mere minutes, without the need for any special tools. Completely manual or with the help of some simple air pressure.

Add to this the fact that it’s an incredibly sustainable option, and you can see why the collapsible container is the answer to many a company’s prayers: fewer flights, more space and less fuel to return a stack of empty ULDs is a nice bonus for the environment.

Not yet ready to send back your ULDs? Storing your containers at an airport, even though it can be expensive, is sometimes a valid option. However, storing them has just become much easier and less costly. Plus, the need to invest in a larger fleet is eliminated because empty ULDs will be exactly where they should be.

Never stop improving

Improvements and innovations are still being made to our collapsible air cargo container. Track and trace is a good example. This not only enables fleet managers to monitor the cargo’s condition and the ULD’s route from dispatch to delivery but also oversee which trade lanes are balanced and which are not. Combining this knowledge with access to collapsible containers will help companies restore balance in the global ULD fleet.

Our collapsible ULDs give companies a better way of doing business. They save time and money, free up more space, simplify loading and unloading, and lessen the environmental impact. In our opinion, everyone’s a winner.

If you’d like more information about our collapsible containers, please contact one of our specialists at info@vrr.aero.

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Ben Lakerveld was educated as an Industrial Designer. He joined VRR in 2010 as an Engineer. Over the years he gained sales skills, which finally led to a role as Sales Manager. He’s currently fully responsible for the sales and marketing department, including marketing campaigns. He also looks after some of VRR’s key customers and supports the sales and marketing team whenever needed.

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