During any stroll down the Bund in Shanghai, you may catch sight of a shipment of wind-turbine blades heading down the Huangpu River. Unlike the city’s massive container shipments calling to terminals far from the city’s center, such breakbulk cargo – cargo not shipped inside standardized metal containers – is on its way downstream from the smaller terminal 15.
The most obvious reason shipping companies may opt out of using containers – the dominant shipping method worldwide – is the size or shape of the cargo. One sub-section of breakbulk, called project logistics, deals with moving large pieces of machinery or construction materials, to be utilized for large-scale projects.
“Project materials are things that won’t fit in a container – too long, too tall, too wide, too heavy,” said James Leonard, vice president of US-based breakbulk shipping company Intermarine.
Other times, neo-bulk cargo, which is lower in value or not susceptible to damage when handled, like steel products or bagged dry material, will be shipped loose without a container.
“That big steel box costs money, so there’s an economic incentive,” said Leonard.
Exporting in pieces
Though breakbulk shipping companies generally cover both moving project equipment and low-value bagged goods, breakbulk firms operating in China have found more success in the former – capitalizing on the country’s unprecedented manufacturing export boom.
“There is more and more cargo of big dimensions that cannot be containerized,” said Tadeusz Pisarczyk, commercial manager of breakbulk shipping firm Chipolbrok.
Lillian Yuan, managing director of freight forwarding company Hansa Meyer, said the company’s China operations commonly see project equipment for cement plants, power plants, steel plants and road construction machinery. She expects exports from the country to outpace imports in the coming years.
Intermarine’s Leonard has also seen an import-export shift in the project logistics market.
“We are taking out a tremendous volume of finished chemical refinery equipment and … [also] taking out a lot of older and used power-generating equipment that is being disassembled and sold to India and the Middle East. For our niche, [business is] 70% export, 30% import.”
A different beast
One of the major differences between project equipment shippers and their containerized counterparts is that they must go to where the producers themselves are. After all, moving a 120-meter, 330-metric-ton Naptha Splitter gasoline desulfurization unit by land, for instance, is not a feasible option.
As a result, many breakbulk ships are designed for shallow draft, which allows them to berth in shallower waters. Some also come with self-sustaining equipment, like multiple heavy-lifting cranes, that can unload the cargo without the help of port-side cranes.
“For container shipping, the port authority will handle [loading] automatically,” said Benni Cao, national industrial project manager at freight forwarder SDV PRC. “But for breakbulk cargoes, we have to know well who will be responsible for loading, lashing and unloading.”
And because of breakbulk cargo’s awkward size and shape, the skills of stevedores, or platform workers, are also a major determinant of overall port efficiency.
“Breakbulk requires skilled laborers to load and lash the cargo,” said Yuan.
Both Hansa Meyer and SDV PRC have encountered problems with stevedoring companies that deny responsibility when project materials are mishandled. Cao said that if port workers do not respect operational procedures, shipping companies must bring in an independent maritime warranty surveyor to supervise.”
Yet, despite the hiccups, operators are bullish about China’s project logistics future – wherever the tide of globalization may take them.
“As an ocean carrier, our assets are very mobile,” said Leonard. “We can go to where the markets are.”