The Trouble With Supply Chains in Natural Disasters and How to Fix It

By Aidan Alusic-Bingham and Ethan Dresner

A photo of conditions in Haiti after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010 (source: Wikipedia)

In 2010, a devastating earthquake killed over 100,000 people in Haiti and left the country in ruins. First aid and humanitarian organizations scrambled to provide emergency relief. Conditions were horrific, and volunteers were struggling to provide aid. Disorganization and inefficiency were widespread as Haiti’s infrastructure was severely damaged, allowing only limited communication. The lack of effective transportation prevented the arrival of vital equipment and supplies, leaving volunteers and doctors without the ability to tend to injuries and treat critical wounds properly. As more and more issues arose within Haiti, the system of organization broke down and nearly collapsed.

Disaster situations arise across the planet in numerous countries. They often cannot be predicted, and their effect on an area can be swift and devastating. Aid organizations have difficulty attending to everyone who needs attention and are regularly left without the tools they need. To obtain the equipment they require, they must go through long and unpredictable supply chains which prevent efficient relief work from being carried out. Shipping Salvation is a concept that proposes to help address this problem by providing continuous access to much-needed supplies.

What exactly is Shipping Salvation?

Shipping Salvation uses modified shipping containers with DIY supply-making equipment to help aid groups provide assistance to disaster-stricken areas. With a simple Google search, you can find multiple companies and groups that are currently attempting this, like the Red Cross, a company called Container Kings, the aid group Field Ready, and even the United States Military. Shipping Salvation takes the best of all of these ideas and integrates them into a streamlined concept. Our customizable, modular containers include the latest in 3D designing and manufacturing tools, well suited to creating anything a humanitarian group may need to bolster its efforts.

A barge carrying shipping containers (Source: The Maritime Executive)

Let’s do a quick, simple, comparison of the Red Cross, Container Kings, Field Ready, The U.S. Military, and Shipping Salvation’s solutions to see how they stack up.

Container Kings:

A “Container Kings” premade shipping container workshop (source:

Container Kings is a Thai company that builds customized shipping containers for regular everyday people all the way up to large companies that need temporary structures. They turn containers into workshops, schools, bathrooms, and offices. These are not fully customizable containers. They start with a basic idea and then the customer works with the company to make the container as close to what they want as possible. These containers can be connected and, since they are shipping containers, they are not all that hard to move around or to get into a specific location. These containers can be used in aid situations but their largest drawback is that they are not self-sufficient. For instance, they rely on external utilities and this could present a problem in areas where resources such as water and electricity may not be readily available.

The Red Cross

The Red Cross provides aid, usually medical, to disaster-stricken areas. They are currently using shipping containers to create hospital-like complexes in areas where there might not be hospitals, or the hospitals have been destroyed. The Red Cross’ use of shipping containers is currently purely medical, and this works well for what they need and do. They choose how their containers are laid out and what is inside of them. This is similar to the idea behind Shipping Salvation. However, the Red Cross containers are not self-sufficient, either, and they do not include a living area for the aid workers.

Red Cross medical shipping containers (source: Zeppelin Mobile Systems)

United States Military

The United States Military has many different uses for shipping containers. They are using them for everything from temporary barracks to the bases for remote controlled weapons. However, they are also using them as workshops that they can drop into areas where tools and a work area are needed to repair equipment in the field.

The workshops that the U.S. Military uses are built to the exact specifications needed, and they are made for ease of transportation. The Military uses a company called SeaBox to build their workshop containers. SeaBox also has a limited civilian market. They are mainly focused on building containers for the military.

Shipping Salvation differs from those made SeaBox because it offers many different types of containers and it is geared more towards an aid group/civilian market. Sea Box ruggedizes their containers for use in combat situations and includes exclusively equipment that is beneficial to the military, whereas Shipping Salvation can include numerous different pieces of equipment for use by aid organizations.

A U.S. Military container workshop (Source: U.S. Military)

Field Ready

Field Ready is an organization that is using 3D printers to help with ongoing relief efforts in Haiti. They are using the 3D printers to help reduce lag time in getting supplies to the country and to help teach people in Haiti about 3D printers and how they can help to rebuild Haiti. Field Ready is not exclusively based in Haiti, and they are also not using only 3D printers. In addition to 3D printers, they are involved in ways that are quite standard for an aid organization: they help countries that have been affected by disasters rebuild themselves and make it so that they are better prepared for any future disasters.

That being said, they are one of the front-runners in using 3D printing technology in aid situations. It has helped them to produce some of the more basic items that they often run out of and need faster than they can ship them. An example would be umbilical cord clips. Before they started using 3D printers, nurses would often have to rely on whatever was available to them to tie off umbilical cords. However, once the 3D printers were brought in, they were able to print umbilical cord clips using the 3D printers, and distribute them in home birthing kits or to nurses in need of them. 3D printing the clips has several advantages: it’s fast and can be done in large quantities, it’s sanitary, and it is easy enough to be done by anyone.

Field ready has been very successful with their use of 3D printers as both a training tool and as a way to quickly fill the need for smaller, yet critical supply items. However, they do not have an effective way of keeping the printers secure and functional once they are brought into the areas where they will be used.

A Field Ready class on how to use 3D printers (source:iLab Haiti)

Shipping Salvation

The simple idea behind Shipping Salvation is that aid groups can customize shipping containers to make them into self-sufficient workshops, kitchens, or anything else that they may need in an aid situation and then ship it in ready to go almost as soon as it hits the ground. The containers can split into multiple parts to make them easier to transport into remote areas.

The containers would also be completely self-sufficient. For example, they would feature solar panels in case electricity was not available in the area they were located. They would also have living quarters for the aid workers to live in while they helped people who have been affected by disaster or while they taught people in the area how to use the equipment in the containers. Additionally, containers are easy to repurpose; when aid organizations leave an area, they can leave the container behind for reuse by those who live there.

The containers would be set up to help minimize the lag time in getting supplies to the aid groups. Workshop containers would have 3D printers or shop tools in them so that aid workers could make tools and supplies that they need instead of having to wait for them to be shipped in and risking them not making it in time.

The overall goal of Shipping Salvation is to make aid groups more effective and to make aid workers lives easier.

Other companies that supply shipping containers filled with equipment for use in humanitarian aid environments supply only prepackaged containers with predetermined supplies enclosed. Our solution provides customization options before a container is purchased to avoid charging customers for equipment that is not needed. In the case of a humanitarian aid effort located in a remote area, delivery of a container can be difficult. To address this, we offer shipping via plane, boat, and tractor-trailer such that it can be delivered to any region.

A 3D model of what Shipping Salvation looks to create

Ineffective supply chains often stunt humanitarian aid efforts. Integral supplies and equipment are delayed to an excessive degree. Additionally, the system in place for many aid organizations makes it difficult for them to request new supplies and for communication to happen between aid outposts and their headquarters. This breach in communication hinders the humanitarian organization’s ability to provide assistance to those they work with. We strive to solve this issue and allow these organizations to achieve their full potential in assisting others.

This lack of effective communications and supply chains was a very prominent problem in Haiti. Aid groups that requested more supplies often did not receive the supplies in time and/or when they received them, not all of the supplies that they had requested were there. This is where Shipping Salvation could have had the largest impact. By allowing aid groups to ship in a large portion of the supplies they will need, and the tools needed to create more supplies if they ran out, Shipping Salvation could have improved the quality of the aid work in Haiti and helped to simplify and speed up the supply chain.

Why Customizable Shipping Containers?

At this point you may be wondering ‘Why shipping containers? Why not create something that is completely customized instead of repurposing shipping containers?’ The answer to that is that is this: it simplifies the whole process and the nature of shipping containers makes creating a completely new structure to house equipment in an unnecessary task. Shipping containers are a very good base for a portable workshop, hospital, housing etc. They are durable, they are easy to ship, they are readily available and relatively inexpensive, and they are easily customizable. These features make shipping containers a very practical starting place for aid groups to create mobile version of the facilities they will need while in disaster areas.

3D printers give humanitarian groups the ability to produce medical equipment, building tools, and organizational devices in less time than ordering individual pieces of equipment from their headquarters. We include tools to create filament out of natural materials that can be found nearly anywhere. Removing filament from the supply chain altogether means that it is available almost immediately. Additionally, it is more eco-friendly than plastic alternatives.

An example of some of the medical equipment that can be 3D printed (source: 3D Printing Industry)

Shipping Salvation solves some of the major issues that arise when humanitarian relief efforts are most needed. Organizations looking to help when catastrophe strike need to be as efficient as they can be in order to make a difference. With all the tools and supplies needed to provide effective care for those in need in an efficient manner, humanitarian groups are more likely to rescue the highest number of people they can.