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  • Melvin Mathews

Should the bulk cargo industry containerise?

Historically, bulk cargo is transported globally from areas where it is produced, cultivated or mined to areas where it is consumed or enhanced in value. Over land bulk cargoes are transported mainly by railway wagons or trucks. Inland waterways and coastal shipping have also been used where it has been feasible and cost efficient.

Bulk carriers that are ocean going ships, generally carry homogenous bulk cargoes in their hatches. Some bulk carriers carry cargo one way and return empty to carry the same cargo again. When there is a change in the cargo to be carried, the cargo hatches are cleaned to avoid contamination.

The existing containerised cargo industry on the other hand predominantly supports an East-West trade. It deals with finished goods, transported from manufacturing countries in the East to consuming countries in the West. The returning containers that are transported on large container ships usually being empty.

So what is the argument for containerising bulk cargoes? What advantages can be foreseen?

  • Bulk carriers will no longer have to carry homogenous cargo in all the hatches.

  • Multiple cargoes in containers can be carried on the same ship, both ways. This will dramatically increase their productivity and profitability.

  • Ballast voyages which account for anywhere up to 50% will be eliminated, saving fuel & reducing unproductive emissions.

  • There will be no need for ballast water exchanges since carrying ballast water may no longer be required.

  • Cleaning of hatches when changing cargo will no longer be required if the cargo is containerised.

  • Light cargoes when carried in full hatches, do not get the ship loading to their relevant loadlines. In such cases, additional cargo in containers can be loaded on deck in tiers until the applicable loadlines are reached.

  • Generation of particulate matter when loading and unloading bulk cargoes, using grabs and conveyor belts onto trucks, railway wagons and ships in ports, can be avoided completely.

  • Containers once loaded and sealed shut at the mines, only need to be opened at the end customer.

  • Grains loaded into containers and sealed at farms only needed to be opened at processing facilities.

  • Open hatch loading and unloading of bulk cargoes will not have to be stopped due to adverse weather such as rain.

  • Transportation losses, contamination, grain off speck and spoilage can be drastically reduced.

  • Containerisation will allow transhipment of bulk cargoes.

  • Cargo can be tracked end-to-end with embedded GPS chips on the containers.

  • Container port bottle necks and congestions can be avoided as containers could potentially leave or arrive by bulk carrier ports too.

  • Bulk carrier turn-around times in ports can be reduced from days to hours.

  • Since the weight of each bulk container will be known, time consuming operations such as draft surveys can be avoided, especially in inclement weather.

  • Instead of building warehouses in different parts of the country for bulk cargo storage, containers can be used a mobile warehouses for storage that could be moved based on demand or in rapid response to a natural calamity.

  • Significant reduction in cost and time while handling bulk cargoes during modal shift (road - rail - sea - air) can be achieved through bulk cargo containerisation, impacting turnaround times across global supply chains.

  • All cost and time spent in repetitive operations (weighment, heaping for bulk loading or warehouse storage for weather protection, etc) at modal shift can be totally eliminated.

  • Any assurance of quantity and quality required for middle services en-route can be undertaken using initial documentation at the time of loading, sealing and weighment of the container.

  • Containerisation of bulk cargoes will not just save cost and time, but also significantly reduce risk and safety related incidents. Consequently this may not just avoid delays and detentions, but also lead to reduced insurance costs and claims.

With so many advantages, it appears that containerising bulk cargoes will be the right way forward to make bulk cargo transportation efficient, sustainable and environmentally friendly. The alternate is to continue to do what we have been doing for decades.

Let me know your thoughts.

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