From The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne] (CH): “Lightweight ultra-connected seaborne containers”

From The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne] (CH)

10.5.22
Cécilia Carron

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The composite containers developed by AELER – an EPFL startup, deliver better performance across the board: they’re stronger, have a bigger payload, are better insulated, allow for enhanced tracking and can help cut carbon emissions. More than 60 of the containers are currently crossing oceans around the world, and the firm hopes to grow this number substantially starting next year.

Cargo ships carrying containers in a rainbow of colors have been a feature of maritime transport for over 50 years. These containers provide a low-cost, standardized way of shipping goods and are a linchpin of global trade – some 80% of products worldwide are transported via this method. And thanks to the “Internet of Things” (IoT) shipping containers have gone high-tech in recent years: IoT technology helps lower the financial losses from stolen merchandise, misplaced articles and perishable foodstuffs. AELER has taken these advances one step further with its revolutionary Unit One containers. While these units still meet industry-standard specifications for size, their structure has been improved to provide a bigger payload, greater strength and better insulation. The Unit One design includes a smooth exterior and embedded sensors that send data directly to an application, enabling operators to track goods, monitor shipping conditions and streamline fleet management. The startup raised CHF 7.5 million in an initial funding round and plans to carry out a second one soon. With over 60 Unit One containers already sailing the high seas, the prospects are bright for the young firm to grow rapidly starting next year.

Stronger and better insulated walls

The startup cofounder David Baur, an entrepreneur at heart, has long been convinced of the potential for improving standard metal containers. During his Master’s project at EPFL’s Laboratory for Processing of Advanced Composites (LPAC), headed by Véronique Michaud, Baur began developing and testing a composite framework made of fiberglass and resin. “When David first spoke to me about his idea, I doubted it could work,” says Michaud. “But his enthusiasm won me over. That wasn’t the first time I’d agreed to a research project that initially seemed a little crazy!” Baur then refined the structure, which resulted in containers that were stronger and much better insulated. With standard metal containers, the wall strength comes from their crenellated structure. But with Baur’s model, the strength comes from the fiberglass and resin composite. That makes his containers lighter and able to carry more goods; they can transport 11% more cargo than a regular refrigerated container and 17% more than containers for liquids. “Because our Unit One containers have such a resistant structure, they don’t bulge under the pressure from liquids,” says Baur. Prof. Michaud is proud of their work. “Our lengthy discussions about the right material have paid off! It’s exciting to see what Baur and his fellow entrepreneurs have done,” she says, patting the huge container.

We don’t often think about it, but it can get really hot inside metal containers sitting in the sun all day. And the temperature can drop quickly at night. These temperature swings can lead to condensation within the payload, which is problematic for goods like foodstuffs. “Moisture-related losses can run into the hundreds of thousands of Swiss francs,” says Baur. “That’s especially true when the cargo contains pharmaceuticals.” Unit One containers, with their passive insulation, go a long way towards tackling this problem.

The company estimates that its containers can reduce carbon emissions from maritime transport by 20% owing to their bigger payload – meaning fewer containers are needed to ship a given amount of cargo – and smooth, aerodynamic shape. By the same token, when Unit One containers are used on trucks, they can lower the fuel requirement by 4%.

A frontrunner in the logtech industry

Technology has been transforming the field of logistics for several years, giving rise to the portmanteau “logtech.” And here too, the company is breaking new ground. “Our technology is the only one of its kind in the industry, because its embedded devices let operators see exactly what’s going on inside a container,” says Baur. Unit One is opening up new possibilities for connectivity, automation and security. The system’s artificial intelligence programs can make sense out of vast amounts of data so that shipping companies can make faster, better-informed decisions about the optimal routes for their containers. This brings cost savings as well as environmental benefits. AELER’s system also includes an application for tracking input from containers’ embedded sensors as well as a fleet-management program.

The process for manufacturing Unit One containers is more expensive than that for standard metal ones. But the technology offers advantages for the transport of many kinds of goods, from drugs and liquids to luxury goods and personal care products. The startup, founded in 2018, is poised to grab a significant share of the market – millions of containers are currently being used around the world. The company already plans to attend all the major maritime-transport industry conferences this fall. “This is the perfect time for Unit One to hit the market, since the industry is ripe for change,” says Baur.

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The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne [EPFL-École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne] (CH) is a research institute and university in Lausanne, Switzerland, that specializes in natural sciences and engineering. It is one of the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, and it has three main missions: education, research and technology transfer.

The QS World University Rankings ranks EPFL(CH) 14th in the world across all fields in their 2020/2021 ranking, whereas Times Higher Education World University Rankings ranks EPFL(CH) as the world’s 19th best school for Engineering and Technology in 2020.

EPFL(CH) is located in the French-speaking part of Switzerland; the sister institution in the German-speaking part of Switzerland is The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zürich [Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich] (CH). Associated with several specialized research institutes, the two universities form The Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Domain) [ETH-Bereich; Domaine des Écoles Polytechniques Fédérales] (CH) which is directly dependent on the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research. In connection with research and teaching activities, EPFL(CH) operates a nuclear reactor CROCUS; a Tokamak Fusion reactor; a Blue Gene/Q Supercomputer; and P3 bio-hazard facilities.

ETH Zürich, EPFL (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne) [École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne](CH), and four associated research institutes form The Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Domain) [ETH-Bereich; Domaine des Écoles polytechniques fédérales] (CH) with the aim of collaborating on scientific projects.

The roots of modern-day EPFL(CH) can be traced back to the foundation of a private school under the name École Spéciale de Lausanne in 1853 at the initiative of Lois Rivier, a graduate of the École Centrale Paris (FR) and John Gay the then professor and rector of the Académie de Lausanne. At its inception it had only 11 students and the offices were located at Rue du Valentin in Lausanne. In 1869, it became the technical department of the public Académie de Lausanne. When the Académie was reorganized and acquired the status of a university in 1890, the technical faculty changed its name to École d’Ingénieurs de l’Université de Lausanne. In 1946, it was renamed the École polytechnique de l’Université de Lausanne (EPUL). In 1969, the EPUL was separated from the rest of the University of Lausanne and became a federal institute under its current name. EPFL(CH), like ETH Zürich (CH), is thus directly controlled by the Swiss federal government. In contrast, all other universities in Switzerland are controlled by their respective cantonal governments. Following the nomination of Patrick Aebischer as president in 2000, EPFL(CH) has started to develop into the field of life sciences. It absorbed the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC) in 2008.

In 1946, there were 360 students. In 1969, EPFL(CH) had 1,400 students and 55 professors. In the past two decades the university has grown rapidly and as of 2012 roughly 14,000 people study or work on campus, about 9,300 of these being Bachelor, Master or PhD students. The environment at modern day EPFL(CH) is highly international with the school attracting students and researchers from all over the world. More than 125 countries are represented on the campus and the university has two official languages, French and English.

Organization

EPFL is organized into eight schools, themselves formed of institutes that group research units (laboratories or chairs) around common themes:

School of Basic Sciences
Institute of Mathematics
Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering
Institute of Physics
European Centre of Atomic and Molecular Computations
Bernoulli Center
Biomedical Imaging Research Center
Interdisciplinary Center for Electron Microscopy
MPG-EPFL Centre for Molecular Nanosciences and Technology
Swiss Plasma Center
Laboratory of Astrophysics

School of Engineering

Institute of Electrical Engineering
Institute of Mechanical Engineering
Institute of Materials
Institute of Microengineering
Institute of Bioengineering

School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Institute of Architecture
Civil Engineering Institute
Institute of Urban and Regional Sciences
Environmental Engineering Institute

School of Computer and Communication Sciences

Algorithms & Theoretical Computer Science
Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning
Computational Biology
Computer Architecture & Integrated Systems
Data Management & Information Retrieval
Graphics & Vision
Human-Computer Interaction
Information & Communication Theory
Networking
Programming Languages & Formal Methods
Security & Cryptography
Signal & Image Processing
Systems

School of Life Sciences

Bachelor-Master Teaching Section in Life Sciences and Technologies
Brain Mind Institute
Institute of Bioengineering
Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research
Global Health Institute
Ten Technology Platforms & Core Facilities (PTECH)
Center for Phenogenomics
NCCR Synaptic Bases of Mental Diseases

College of Management of Technology

Swiss Finance Institute at EPFL
Section of Management of Technology and Entrepreneurship
Institute of Technology and Public Policy
Institute of Management of Technology and Entrepreneurship
Section of Financial Engineering

College of Humanities

Human and social sciences teaching program

EPFL Middle East

Section of Energy Management and Sustainability

In addition to the eight schools there are seven closely related institutions

Swiss Cancer Centre
Center for Biomedical Imaging (CIBM)
Centre for Advanced Modelling Science (CADMOS)
École Cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL)
Campus Biotech
Wyss Center for Bio- and Neuro-engineering
Swiss National Supercomputing Centre