Will Factories in a Box Revolutionize Sustainability Initiatives?

Gizmodo just ran a very interesting, and vey insightful article on how The Next Industrial Revolution Starts in this 20-foot Shipping Container about Re-Char and their Shop-in-a-Box that can perform rapid fabrication of steel parts by way of software and a CNC plasma torch. With the Shop-in-a-Box described in the article, Re-Char can produce 600 lids for Climate Kilns. This is a specialized lid-and-chimney integration that adapts a 55-gallon drum to produce the soil amendment biochar. (In Kenya, farmers burn sugarcane debris in an open field and release tons of carbon. A Climate Kiln controls the burn to produce the carbon-rich charcoal biochar that, mixed into soil, reduces the fertilizer requirements for crops by half.) This required the precision cutting of 18-gauge metal, which, in East Africa, leaves you the option of using a guy with an oxy-acetylene torch on the side of the highway or importing a full production run out of China, one full shipping container at a time. But for 30,000, Re-Char was able to produce a Shop-in-a-Box metal cutting and joining setup that could be run by two two people and produce 600 lids as a time, when needed, where needed (as the shop in a box can be moved to a new community when the needs of the current community have been fulfilled).

From a sustainability perspective, this is incredible. It’s lean, green, and completely against the routine. Actually, lean is an understatement. The power requirements are limited to what is needed to produce the lids. The energy required just to light, cool, etc. an average factory typically takes a 600 V feed … or two … or three. It’s green in that it can be powered by sustainable energy, including wind power, water power, or solar power – whatever is available. (Transformers come with the standard kit, along with generators for [natural] gas power for stability. Just add batteries and a UPS and it’s 100% green power most of the time.) And it’s completely against the routine. When the industrial revolution started, you can be that the robber barrons never predicted a moveable factory.

To date, the most (wide-spread) innovative use of containers has been data center modules, with Google a leader in this technology. (But this has been taken to the next level. For example, Green Data Center has designs for completely self-contained data center modules that you can drop anywhere. Just hook-up a power feed and an internet feed, and you’re literally good to go. (And since you can easily put a generator, or two, in a second container, you don’t even need a power feed. Just a natural gas feed, split between a couple of generators if you don’t have a sustainable power feed, for a primary feed.)

But we don’t have to stop at data centers and steel-part fabrication shops. Especially when we are talking about the developing world (which still includes much of Africa, South America, and parts of Asia). Do we really need to refine cane sugar 2,200 kgs at a time, for example? Or how about water purification? If we’re talking about a small community of a couple of hundred people, and the primary focus is clean drinking water, we don’t need to purify 100,000 liters a day! Purifying 1,000 liters would do nicely! Both processes would fit nicely in a container system. (After all, the sugar refinement process is not radically different from micro-brewing in terms of what is needed, and you could fit that nicely in a container too — although we can’t necessarily bring the same humanitarian arguments if we did.)

And when we’ve insured that everyone has the absolute necessities of clean air, clean water, and healthy food — we could ship them clothing factories in a box. It doesn’t make sense to sew shirts in sweat-shops on another continent just to ship them to small communities in Africa, or South America, or Asia, where the living wage is $2 a day or less. Considering the shipping costs alone, you couldn’t set the price at a point where you’d make many sales. Just ship a container to the town, train a few locals on the cloth-cutting production lines and find a few budding seamstresses to do the stiching, and produce the clothing where it will be sold. A zero-mile supply chain that emits zero-carbon and has zero shipping costs. And since you don’t have time-sensitive fashion industries in developing economies, you could even rotate it between a few small communities in the beginning while the consumer base and local economy built up. (Hopefully you’d also move the employees too if they were willing, as you could outfit another container as temporary living quarters without much cost or effort.)

I think the physical manifestation of the Solution-in-a-Box approach has the potential to revolutionize manufacturing, distribution, and sustainability. And it’s not like we have a shortage of containers thanks to the outsourcing craze of the last fifteen years. They’re just sitting there waiting for a good use. And with all the super-panamax ships, and super-panamax capable ports, that we have at our disposal, we can get them from any continent to any other continent with ease, in bulk, and pretty close to where we want them. And then we just need a freightliner to haul them, and there’s no shortage of those.