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    ATS Transportation Blog

    Breakbulk Shipping: How It Works and How It’s Changing

    As a shipper, you know not every item you ship will fit neatly inside a container. And that’s why there’s bulk shipping, which is the process of transporting large quantities of loose goods directly onto a shipping vessel.

    Traditional bulk shipping falls into two traditional classifications: dry bulk (like grains, salt, sugar, sand, iron ore and unmixed cement) or liquid bulk (like crude oil, petroleum and vegetable oil). But what about oversized items that can’t be categorized as dry or liquid bulk?

    Some items can’t be containerized or shipped as a standard bulk item, and that’s when you may need to consider breakbulk shipping.

    But what exactly does “breakbulk” mean? How does breakbulk shipping work? And what do you need to know when choosing a maritime carrier or international freight forwarder to move breakbulk shipments? Here's what you need to know.

    What Is Breakbulk Shipping and Why Is It Beneficial?

    In shipping, "breakbulk" refers to cargo items that are too large to fit in standard containers and are neither dry aggregates nor liquid. For example, construction machinery (like large bulldozers), wind turbine parts (like blades and tower components), and oversized generators or transformers are all considered breakbulk items.

    Breakbulk shipping is a fantastic option for over-dimensional cargo because it doesn’t necessarily require you to break down products to load them onto a vessel, nor does it require the same level of assembly at your destination. Additionally, because it’s not containerized, you don’t always need a port crane to unload it, which opens you up to more port options — including RoRo shipping. And because it’s all in one piece, you’ll only need one bill of lading when shipping internationally.

    But, it does come with a few challenges.

    Breakbulk Shipping Challenges and How to Overcome Them

    Here are a few common drawbacks shippers face when leveraging breakbulk shipping:

    • Risk: Generally this type of cargo is large and unconventional, so it might require additional handling — which creates more risk for damage and/or vandalism if not planned and executed by an experienced and knowledgeable staff.

      Fortunately, thanks to some new innovations in breakbulk shipping technology, there are now ways to ship non-containerized cargo fully enclosed and secured. To minimize your risk and ensure your cargo arrives safely and intact, be sure to do your homework prior to hiring an international breakbulk carrier. Look for those that have network access to new technologies, as well as an experienced team that knows the process and common risk points so they can avoid them from the start.


    • Cost: Compared to containerized shipping, breakbulk is often associated with higher costs. That’s because moving this kind of cargo demands more handling and more labor; however those additional costs can often be offset by savings in other areas. Additionally, because it's priced per metric ton or cubic meter, estimating costs is more challenging and requires very specific cargo descriptions, dimensions and weights.

      Working with an experienced international freight forwarder can help you stay on budget and mitigate unexpected costs. Additionally, providing engineered schematic drawings and lifting diagrams are very helpful in the planning and permitting phases of the logistics movement, and can help ensure you receive a more accurate estimate for your project.


    • Breakbulk cargo vessel availability: Unlike container vessels, multipurpose vessel fleets don’t always operate on set schedules. Vessel capacity can vary, and it can be difficult to find the right vessel in the right position when you need to ship your cargo.

      But, a reliable international freight forwarder can manage all the logistical planning for your project and help you secure a spot on vessels that best align with your project timeline.

    What Should You Look For When Choosing an International Freight Forwarder?

    Not all international freight forwarders deliver equally quality results. When choosing a provider to help you manage your breakbulk shipping needs, there are two key factors you should consider:

    • Company history: Consider how long the organization has been around and how long they’ve been involved in international freight forwarding. Years of experience often translates into expertise, a better understanding of the market and an ability to overcome common challenges. Asset-based forwarders are also a good choice as they potentially have their own specialized equipment that is best suited for your specific shipment beyond what the ocean carriers can provide.
    • Relationships and network: Always work with freight forwarders that have long-term, proven relationships with ocean carriers and port operators and have earned their trust. This helps guarantee a smoother experience and fewer unwelcome surprises.

    What Innovations Can We Expect to See in Breakbulk Shipping?

    Breakbulk shipping has been around for generations, but technology is transforming how we move over-dimensional cargo. Today, vessel owners are designing vessels with larger capacities and lift capabilities that can handle upwards of 800 metric tons or more, ensuring enormous components for large projects, like power plants, can be moved more safely and efficiently.

    Additionally, ATS and its international shipping partners have developed the 53’ BreakBulk Boxx™ — which is designed so that breakbulk cargo can be side-loaded and unloaded like a flatbed or flatrack and allows for no-transfer service —for specific trade lanes. The BreakBulk Boxx is then transported like a typical container shipment for the ocean voyage. Currently, the BreakBulk Boxx is only available for U.S.–Puerto Rico, or for dedicated fleet use by a shipper in defined trades. (If you’re interested in learning more, please contact us today.)

    Shipping non-containerized cargo has always been a bit more challenging than container shipping, but innovations are changing the way we think about breakbulk shipping. By working with a trustworthy international freight forwarder like ATS International and leveraging products like our BreakBulk Boxx™, you can overcome the obstacles of over-dimensional cargo shipping.

    Want to learn more about our breakbulk international shipping services? Contact us today or request a quote.

    Tags: ATS International, Over Dimensional Shipping, BreakBulk Boxx, Breakbulk Shipping

    Jay Thomassen

    Written by Jay Thomassen

    Jay is the director for ATS International Services, Inc., where he oversees commercial and business activities of ATS International’s operations. Jay has been with ATS in his current role for eight years and has partnered with ATS since 1992 in his various roles with both U.S. domestic and ocean transportation carriers. Jay began his transportation career in 1986 as a commercial over-the-road Driver following his service in the U.S. Navy.

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