New Uses for the Humble Shipping Containers


You see shipping containers everywhere. You see them on highways, railroad sidings, and ports around the globe. Shipping containers are ideal for shipping goods, logistics, storage, supply chain management, warehousing, etc. However, shipping containers also are finding new uses in the most unlikely places.

Shipping containers come in two standard sizes – 20 feet (six meters) and 40 feet (12 meters). Standard sizes make it easier to ship goods anywhere in the world using the same trucks, ships, and railcars. Standard sizes also make shipping expenses more predictable, and they are modular, secure, and extremely rugged. You have undoubtedly seen pictures of transport ships carrying shipping containers stacked like Lego blocks. In fact, containers were originally dubbed “sea cans” when Malcolm P. McLean launched a program to standardize the transport of goods in 1956. By 1970, the “sea cans” that started in the United States had become the global standard for transporting goods.

There are an estimated 65 million sea cans in the world today, 11 million sitting idle at any given time, and an average of 2.6 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU) of containers produced every year. Entrepreneurs, architects, engineers, and innovators are exploring new applications for shipping containers that have nothing to do with shipping. The containers have many attractive features. In addition to standard sizes, they are easy to secure and weatherproof, which means they can be adapted for unorthodox uses. We see shipping containers used as the building blocks for new constructions, products, and services. Here are just four examples:

Urban Farming

Shipping containers are proving to be ideal for growing crops. Dozens of companies are springing up with configurations to adapt shipping containers as portable hydroponic gardens.

Companies like CropBox,, and Growcer are converting shipping containers into portable, self-contained gardens that can grow food anywhere. Shipping containers are ideal for hydroponics. They are rugged and waterproof, so they protect crops from inclement weather. The fact they are enclosed eliminates the risk of pests and blight. And they are climate-controlled, which means you can grow crops throughout the year.

These startups also have demonstrated that using shipping containers for hydroponics is also cost-effective. Restaurants and hotels have found they can grow their own vegetables on-site, which saves water and space while enabling them to offer a true farm-to-table dining experience. Growing produce on-site is also good for the environment. Using self-contained grow containers eliminates the need for fertilizers and pesticides and means perishables don’t have to be harvested and shipped to market, reducing the carbon footprint. Food production is one of the most significant contributors to climate change and raising plant-based food is responsible for 29% of carbon emissions from agriculture.

Remote-controlled Buildings

Since shipping containers are built to withstand all kinds of weather and are easy transport, they are ideal for use as portable structures. You have already seen shipping containers adapted as mobile offices for construction sites, but that’s only one application.

Some innovators are adapting shipping containers for use as secure structures in remote areas. Shipping containers are easy to transport and can be pre configured as any kind of turnkey building, from a shelter to a portable data center.

Sky-X has started using shipping containers as remote-controlled “drone garages.” These climate-controlled boxes can be placed anywhere and serve as recharging stations for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These remote-controlled UAVs can be used in any location or climate to monitor remote assets, such as power lines or oil pipelines. Using shipping containers as part of a standardized design cut construction, shipping, and maintenance costs by 50%.


Shipping containers are also being adapted as microfactories making everything from ice to custom goods. Microfactories can be designed and preconfigured and then delivered for installation anywhere.

Microfactories democratize manufacturing, making it easy to create low-volume, custom runs of finished goods. Emerging technologies such as 3D printing and CNC machining (computer numerical control) make it possible to design a complete production line for a compact space. 

Companies like Seattle-based Modica are building custom modular microfactory modules complete with modular machine tools, factory automation, and built-in workspaces. They call their custom-built modules “factories-as-a-service.”

Circular Economy Manufacturing (CEM) is another company building microfactories from shipping containers. CEM provides solar-powered, self-contained microfactories equipped with plastic shredders and molding machines to recycle post-consumer plastics.

Renewable Energy Plants

The growing demand for renewable energy has spawned multiple startups that are using shipping containers to create self-contained micro power grids. By using shipping containers, these microgrids can be prebuilt and then transported to remote areas or wherever they are needed to provide power.

BoxPower has adapted shipping containers to house containerized solar microgrids. The units are assembled off-site and then transported to deliver power on-site. BoxPower customers are using these solar microgrids for backup and supplementary power for critical facilities such as hospitals, as a substitute for diesel generators, and for power in areas where conventional power lines increase the risk of wildfires.  

Solar power isn’t the only microgrid option. Companies like Uprise Energy are adapting shipping containers for portable wind turbines. The company’s Mobile Power Stations is a turnkey wind turbine housed in a 20-foot shipping container. It can be towed anywhere and set up in less than an hour to deliver 10 kW of clean energy.

These are just four examples of ways that clever entrepreneurs have adapted shipping containers for new applications. Innovators and startups are repurposing shipping containers with a new design rather than throwing them on the scrap heap. It’s all about having a fresh idea and finding the means to execute it.


Author Bio: Kevin Bailey is President at Design 1st