Is it bulk or is it breakbulk? – a bit of shipping history
Among many different inquiries from our customers and website’s visitors, we have noticed a tendency to confuse bulk and breakbulk services. As we love to resolve all shipping problems, no matter whether it’s a real logistic issue or just a theoretical stumper, here we come to help you with this one as well.
Let’s start with just a bit of history, to give you the right perspective. For most of the history of shipping, breakbulk was the most popular type of cargo. It could be a bigger item which needed to be handled individually or smaller items packed in bags, boxes, barrels or other vessels. They could all be different shapes and sizes. Usually, goods were transported to the port, where they were stored in the warehouses awaiting the vessel. Then after being moved on the ship, dock workers had to organise the storage of the cargo in the hold. The process was therefore very complex and gradual, and the world of trade needed more efficient solutions.
This is where the story of containerisation starts. The idea of the container as a universal box or vessel to carry cargo was slowly developing during the nineteenth and twentieth century. Yet only in 1956, Malcolm McLean – an American transport entrepreneur – developed the modern intermodal shipping container. More than a decade later international standards for container sizes were established, significantly reducing the expenses of international trade, increasing its speed and therefore contributing to globalisation in general. This is the short story of how we arrived here, to the 21st century, when almost 90% of non-bulk goods are carried in a container.
Yet what about the other 10%? Cargo which is too big to fit into a container? Fortunately, although the world has been relying on containers for the last couple of decades and that unification led to many processes being automated, there are still some people who have not forgotten how to move cargo in the traditional way.
Nowadays these skills are at a premium, as the complex knowledge of lashing, securing and moving the oversized cargo was extruded by the unified and easy to use container boxes.
So, this is what break-bulk cargo is: an item that does not fit into a container due to its large size or weight and needs to be loaded individually. It can be however loaded on an open-top container and moved from the top by a crane, or a flat-rack container and loaded from the top or side. The term break-bulk comes from breaking bulk – extracting the portion of the cargo. It can be an oversized machine, construction or mining equipment, manufacturing materials and more. Whilst moving goods in containers is considered to be the cheapest option of transport, in case of oversized equipment breakbulk rates are still cheaper than the costs of disassembling, packing, shipping, unpacking and re-assembling of the machine.
Apart from containerization, we need to mention another change in the transportation industry, which contributed to the decline in breakbulk shipping. Along with tankers and bulk carriers, the need to carry goods such as liquids or grains in barrels and sacks has dropped. The new vessels are able to load huge amounts of loose unpacked cargo under deck, and efficiency has increased thanks to much quicker ways of loading by pouring or dropping the cargo straight to the hold with the special equipment. Therefore bulk cargo is completely different from breakbulk, which it is often confused with. Examples of bulk cargo can be any liquid or granular goods, transported in unpacked, loose mass, like grains, coal, iron ore, wood chips, cement or chemicals. Smaller amounts of such cargo can be however boxed and palletised, yet nowadays, they will still be considered as the bulk cargo.
We hope this article has resolved any doubts if it comes to bulk and breakbulk cargo, yet if you still feel confused, have a look on the infographic below. Follow the steps and you will definitely find your answer!