In shipping, breakbulk cargo or general cargo are goods that must be loaded individually, and not in intermodal containers nor in bulk as with oil or grain. Ships that carry this sort of cargo are often called general cargo ships. The term breakbulk derives from the phrase breaking bulk—the extraction of a portion of the cargo of a ship or the beginning of the unloading process from the ship’s holds. These goods may not be in shipping containers. Breakbulk cargo is transported in bags, boxes, crates, drums, or barrels. Unit loads of items secured to a pallet or skid are also used. A break-in-bulk point is a place where goods are transferred from one mode of transport to another, for example the docks where goods transfer from ship to truck.
Breakbulk was the most common form of cargo for most of the history of shipping. Prior to the mid 1950’s ocean shipping looked very different from what we know it to be today. Cargo was loaded onto vessels in barrels, crates, sacks and other forms of bulk packaging that were irregular in size and shape. Manual labor was required to physically unload these goods from ships onto piers where consignees took delivery of their cargo. In the 1950’s the advent of containerized shipping created a revolution in the way goods were transported by ocean. This standardized method of shipping changed everything from the nature of ships used for cargo to the need for manual labor and even allowed ports to move away from the edges of major cities into areas where larger terminals could be built to manage the inventory and flow of containers.
Since the 1960’s the volume of breakbulk cargo has declined dramatically worldwide as containerization has grown. Moving cargo on and off ship in containers is much more efficient, allowing ships to spend less time in port. Breakbulk cargo also suffered from greater theft and damage. There were some basic systems in place, of course, to make the process more efficient, such as the use of rope for bundling timber, sacks for carrying coffee beans, and pallets for stacking and transporting bags or sacks. However, industrial and technological advances, such as the spread of the railways in the 18th century, highlighted the inadequacies of the cargo shipping system. The transfer of cargo from trains to ships and vice versa became a real problem.
Before the container shipping industry emerged, boxes of various types and sizes had often been used in transporting cargo simply because this was the logical way to move things en masse from one location to another. However, despite these developments, cargo handling was almost as labor-intensive after World War II as it had been in the mid-1800s.
According to Breakbulk.com, the interest in breakbulk shipping has grown so large there are conferences dedicated to just that topic such as Breakbulk Americas 2015, which is the largest exhibition and educational forum in the Americas addressing the needs of traditional breakbulk and project cargo logistics professionals.
The method of loading cargo in a “loose” or non-containerized manner, however, persists to this day. Breakbulk is the method of shipping needed for cargo that is too big or heavy to be loaded into a shipping container, or for cargo that cannot enjoy economies of scale through containerized shipping. The most obvious commodity that comes to mind is an automobile, which can be driven onto a Roll on/Roll off (“Ro/Ro”) vessel thereby allowing a liner to transport more vehicles than they could if shipping containers were used.
Breakbulk shipping has now come to be a key mode of transport for shippers of large freight such as oil & gas equipment, military vehicles, cranes, earth moving equipment, large reels and spools of cable, manufacturing equipment and other oversized goods. The impact & benefit of breakbulk shipping is obscured by the volume of container shipping. However, consider the fact that it is breakbulk shipping which allows major oil and gas projects to become operational by facilitating delivery of oilfield compressors and drilling equipment. Similarly, worldwide construction is directly affected by the availability of construction cranes. Major infrastructure projects such as road, train, and dam construction would not be possible without the use of massive earth movers, pile drivers, and other excavating equipment. All of these key elements of the global economy and the movement of capital goods are made possible by breakbulk shipping.
The specifics of breakbulk shipping are often overlooked, but highly relevant to shippers of large cargo. Here are some general insights into how such cargo is loaded:
- Unlike containerized cargo which can be loaded at a shipper’s facility or a container freight station, breakbulk cargo has to be delivered directly to the port of departure and stored in warehouses. From a cost standpoint, shippers should be aware that there are almost always receiving and warehousing charges applied by the origin port for receipt and storage of this cargo.
- At time of loading the cargo is moved to the quay and can be loaded onto ships in several ways. For example, ports may have cranes on the port side of the vessel which actually hoist the cargo onto the ships. Many breakbulk ships also have their own cranes on board which can lift the cargo from port side onto the vessel. Shippers of cargo built onto a platform such as an oilfield compressor, or cargo housed in large crates such as turbine parts or industrial machinery often have their cargo hoisted onto vessels by either port or ship cranes. Cargo that is “self propelled” such as heavy vehicles, construction cranes and other cargo of a vehicular nature will often be driven onto the vessel.
- Once on board, a pattern of load planning is implemented by the lines. For example, large wooden crates are often stowed in the mid or “’tween” decks of the vessel, with heavier crates often being loaded at the bottom of such decks. Also, the cargo is often lashed, strapped or otherwise secured in place to prevent shifting in transit. Vehicles, are usually driven on & off the vessel but can also be hoisted on board by cranes, and are secured on board with lashings. Vehicles, especially cranes, and military vehicles are often towed on board with the use of MAFI trailers which are essentially platforms or chassis that can haul the vehicle.
- Cargo is unloaded at destination in much the same manner as it is loaded, only in reverse of course. Aside from conventional unloading at destination piers, cargo can also be hoisted from one ship to another, a process often referred to as “hook to hook” delivery. For example, mining equipment, oil and gas equipment and similar products which are to be barged or sailed to remote destinations often are delivered this way.
Despite its importance to the worldwide market for project cargo and capital goods, not all logistics providers are capable of offering breakbulk service to their customers. The planning that goes into the quoting, booking and execution of such shipments can be painstaking and the cost of mistakes can be high. For example, a logistics provider will often have to account for haulage costs which include specialized trucks, port receiving charges, usage of port equipment such as cranes and hoists, port warehousing charges and inspection charges at time of loading. And these are charges to be considered before the cargo even gets on board. Similarly, logistics providers must be aware of costs, permits, and potential problems at destination ports as well as in any transit points en route. The potential for cost overruns and unanticipated costs is very high.
A logistics provider also must have sufficient knowledge and capability in place to meet the needs of clients who ship large or oversized cargo that would require breakbulk service. Many a freight forwarder has quoted and accepted breakbulk business only to realize at time of booking that the cargo simply does not fit in an ocean container and falls outside their expertise. The ensuing costs and trouble to shippers can be significant as cost overruns, delayed pick-ups or sailings and other problems can arise that adversely impact the success of an order for such an important part of their business. Breakbulk shipping does involve a high degree of complexity and hence each shipment requires unique practices and protocols to ensure proper execution.
While close collaboration and planning is required between a shipper of breakbulk goods and their logistics provider, shippers should have clear plans in place to address the following issues related to a breakbulk shipments:
o Transit times & Vessel frequency – breakbulk vessels do not always follow the weekly sailing schedules that are typical of containerized vessels. Also, breakbulk ships can often be diverted to pick up special shipments on a charter basis. Accordingly shippers need to share their lead times, required delivery timeframes, and other key transit details to plan accordingly.
o Inland – as mentioned above, large cargo may often require special permits due to domestic road restrictions, size limitations, etc. Also, ports may have restrictions on times or types of cargo delivery. Shippers need to be aware of this as “just get it there” is rarely an option where it comes to breakbulk shipping.
o Permits & Restrictions – continuing on the matter of inland shipping, shippers need to know what limitations their cargo faces. Is the product so large that it can only be trucked at night time to avoid traffic problems? Does the haulage of their product require multi-state permits? Failure to know any of these requirements can stop a shipment right at the factory door, long before reaching ports. Failure to comply with inland regulations can additionally cause penalties to be enforced against the shipper or their vendors.
o Loading – hoisting, roll on/roll off, towing, and other means of loading result in charges. Ports will charge for usage of cranes with a minimum of several hours usage even though hoisting may only take a few minutes. Costs need to be budgeted accordingly. Similarly, durability of packing and crating needs to be considered; not just for the haulage and sailing of the cargo, but also for the loading of the cargo.
While the advent of container shipping has brought fantastic advantages and benefits to the shipping industry and the global market, we cannot discount the fact that breakbulk shipping still has its place. At the end of the day, a shipper needs to understand all facets of breakbulk as well as containerized shipping if they are going to efficiently and effectively charge for the job and get it done right.