August 2010 | Commentary | 3PL Line

Oversized Shipments: Good to Grow

Tags: 3PL, Project Logistics

Ike Ortiz-Luis is international project cargo manager,  DGX-Dependable Global Express, 888-488-4888.

Although container shipping remains the dominant form of ocean transport, breakbulk shipping, in which heavyweight freight is transported without being packed in containers, has seen significant growth. Non-container cargo covers a variety of shipments, ranging from oversized tires for earth-moving equipment to complete electrical power plants.

One reason breakbulk shipping grew despite the economic downturn, which led to a drop in container shipping volumes, is that vessels with heavyweight capabilities often carry industrial products and commodities that are less subject to consumer whims than the goods typically transported in containers.

Many heavyweight shipments involve multi-million and even billion-dollar construction projects ordered both by private industry and government agencies, and these projects typically continue even when the global economy slows.

The Big Deal

Transporting heavyweight cargo presents shippers with more complications than moving merchandise by container. Unlike container shipping, where standard rates often apply, breakbulk cargo is a complex and specialized business. Each breakbulk shipment must be handled individually.

Breakbulk cargo shippers must deal with many questions, such as:

  • How far in advance of the actual shipping date do they have to make the booking?
  • How will the oversized shipment be transported from inland points to dockside?
  • Do they need special permits to move the shipment to port by rail or truck?
  • How will the shipment be loaded aboard the vessel?

A breakbulk cargo specialist can help shippers address these issues. Unlike a general agent or forwarder, a specialist brings experience transporting different kinds of heavyweight cargo globally.

Shippers have many options to consider when transporting non-container cargo. Oversized freight can move via open containers, flat racks, open-top platforms, or roll on/roll off vessels.

Forwarders may advise shippers to book freight well in advance, even as long as one year before the actual shipment, if the consigned cargo consists of “big shoulder” items such as power plant, wind farm, processing plant, or oil refinery equipment. That’s because only a small number of ships with very heavy lift capabilities are available.

Giving credit

Breakbulk cargo shipments often depend on credit market conditions. In addition to large corporations such as Exxon Mobil, General Electric, and Caterpillar, with their Triple A credit ratings, thousands of smaller companies regularly transport items via breakbulk shipping. These companies often require credit, which was in short supply during the past few years. Fortunately, credit markets have eased considerably. Shippers with solid balance sheets, whatever their size, should now have little difficulty in obtaining credit for their oversized shipments.

As alternative energy projects thrive, and countries around the world modernize and update their infrastructures, breakbulk shipping will continue to grow. It is a segment of the shipping business less well-known than container transport, but vital to building the sinews of a modern, industrial society.