I write for and edit a business magazine about international shipping called Breakbulk. It is owned and published by UBM Global Trade. “Breakbulk” means cargo that is not wet or dry bulk (i.e. not grain or coal or petcoke or oil) and also means cargo that is too heavy or large to be put into a container the way goods such as apparel, foods, furniture, electronics, etc., are. Most breakbulk cargo has to be specially handled, on land and on sea.
There is some overlap, however — some breakbulk cargoes such as steel and forest products can be handled by bulk or breakbulk ships or go into containers. These tend to flow from one mode to the other depending on how much is being moved at one time, constraints at destination, freight rate differences, demand for containers, demand for multipurpose vessels and so on.
Another type of breakbulk cargo is roll on, roll off (ro-ro) cargo, which includes cars but also heavy machinery such as would be used in mining. These might move on multipurpose ships, in which case they would have to be lifted on and off with cranes, or on ships with ro-ro ramps, in which case they can be driven on and off. Mining projects typically involve lots of heavy machinery cargo of this type.
The subset of breakbulk cargo called project cargo — and this is a very important topic for our magazine and something we cover all the time — is heavy or bulky or out-of-gauge in some way such that it must be handled ‘breakbulk’ and travel on a specialized ship (called heavy-lift or multipurpose), normally with cranes capable of lifting it on and off the ship. Some ships now have cranes capable of combining to lift more than 1,000 tonnes; this was unheard of not many years ago. Also, sometimes project cargo is driven on or off ro-ro ships or barges on special trailers, or floated on and off if the ship is submersible.
The major players in the project cargo world are clients, EPCs, project forwarders, carriers and other subcontractors, and ports and terminals. EPCs are the engineering, procurement and construction firms (think Bechtel, Fluor) that build major projects for their clients (think oil majors, wind farm developers, government-funded infrastructure and power projects) using equipment built by industrial manufacturers (think Alstom, GE Energy, Siemens, Vestas). These types of projects typically cost millions, even billions, of dollars and can take two, three, four or more years from initial planning to operation.
Project forwarders arrange cargo transport and usually subcontract the carriers and some other services. They are hired by the EPCs and are like travel agents for cargo. The ‘carriers’ are the actual ships that move the cargo, and the owners and operators of those ships.
It’s a very specialized world. Most people have absolutely no idea how much shipping, including breakbulk shipping, affects their lives.