Breakbulk is a term used in the transportation of freight.
It is most applicable to the movement of goods from seaports where ships bring commodities for distribution. In simple terms, it is 'breaking' a large shipment into smaller quantities which are then transported to the buyers of the commodity.
Breakbulk shipments are distinct from in-bulk
shipments, which describe the shipping classification to transport grain, minerals, coal, or other loose bulk commodity. Breakbulk shipments are already to some degree packaged, whether it be in crates, cases, drums or other unit of shipment.
Breakbulk was once the predominant method used to transport goods via ship. It involves bringing a shipload of a commodity into a port, (let's use grapefruit as an example), where the goods are unloaded from the ship. The shipping company has synchronized the arrival of trucks to accept this freight for transportation to market. The vessel has a known volume it can haul, usually measured in tons. The longshoremen can off load a certain amount of tonnage per hour. With these factors in mind, logistics managers can mate the need for transportation to the available distribution capacity. This process can be compared to a ballet where orchestra, singers, and dancers each fulfill their role in the furtherance of a seemingly perfect performance. Conversely, should any of the elements fail to perform correctly, a scene of chaotic discord develops. If, for instance, the logistics managers fails to acquire adequate distribution capacity (trucks), freight is left sitting on the dock. If that freight happens to be perishable, damage can quickly occur. The sight of several thousand cases of strawberries sitting in the afternoon sunlight is guaranteed to bring chills to a logistics manager.
The alterative to breakbulk shipments has been the advent of containerized shipping. No longer do goods have to be subject to the whims of a logistic ballet. The aforementioned strawberries sit within a self contained refrigerated container which simply needs to be hoisted onto a chassis, locked down, hooked to a road tractor and sent on their delicious way. Containerization of goods have made serious inroads into breakbulk shipments in recent years. As this trend has developed, breakbulk handling facilities have declined in popularity.
Fear not the demise of breakbulk shipping. There are some goods which are simply too large, too heavy, or requiring specialized handling to fit within a shipping container. Machinery, chemicals, logs, lumber, steel, automobiles, as well as other materials are still shipped using the breakbulk format.
As containerization thrives the breakbulk terminals have generally chased that segment of the market. Other terminals have bucked the trend, investing in infrastructure and systems to better handle the remaining breakbulk traffic. They have pursued a tactic of catering to this niche.
The ports at Los Angeles/Long Beach, Ca., Port Canaveral, Fl., and others have made the investment in time and resources to make their operations profitable. They expect to thrive in the breakbulk niche instead of merely surviving.
Part of their revitalization is in the area of quickly getting the commodity onto the dock and on its way. That is an area in which containers excel. The breakbulk ports are playing catch-up, and succeeding in speeding up the process is key to their continued viability.
In transportation, it is seldom an either/or situation, but more of an either/and world. There is a role to be played by all modes of transport. Sometimes there is an outcry to get rid of big rigs and ship everything by rail. It sounds all well and good until your local grocer runs out of disposable diapers because the railcar is sitting on a siding somewhere in Nebraska. The modern consumer has become quite pampered, used to having everything he needs at hand. He isn't content to be told that the particular widget he wants won't be in stock until the Thursday after next. As long as there is a demand for rapid delivery of goods, there will exist the means of satisfying that demand. Breakbulk is one time-honored technique used to fulfill that goal.
WorldTrade Magazine; April 1, 2004:Breakbulk; barely hanging on in a containerized world, written by Tony Siedeman