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What Is Break Bulk & Project Cargo Shipping?

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Source: Military Sealift Command – A heavy lift vessel offloading a harbor tug at the Yokosuka Japan Naval Base

When it comes to moving large pieces or amounts of cargo from one side of the country to the other, or across oceans, many people know about the most common methods. But sometimes a piece of cargo is too big for an airplane (or too expensive!), too big for an ISO intermodal container, or just not suitable for shipping by either of these methods for some other reason such as the final door destination location.

In such cases, shippers will often turn to breakbulk shipping. Depending on certain circumstances, breakbulk shipping may also be referred to as project cargo, heavy-lift shipping, OOG (out of gauge) cargo shipping.

Understanding the terminology

The term breakbulk shipping comes from the older phrase “breaking bulk,” which refers to only unloading a portion of the cargo on a ship or the start of the unloading process. This is in reference to the fact that breakbulk items are loaded individually or in small quantities, such as in barrels or crates. With breakbulk shipping, sometimes deliveries can be split between multiple destinations.

Items of extreme length or size that are lashed directly onto the deck of a ship, a RoRo vessel (roll-on/roll-off vessel), or a flat rack container also fall under the standard breakbulk category which is sometimes referred to as OOG cargo shipping.

The term ‘project cargo’ refers to either a combination of breakbulk, air freight, containers, and domestic trucking or the process of putting together a breakbulk shipment from A-Z. Some of these shipment can be full air charters or ocean charters of entire vessels, and include specialized trailers which require permits, packing and crating services, documentary services and customs clearance. In project cargo forwarding, there are many parties involved from start to finish. Project cargo shipping can be planned years in advance, which is why these are called “Projects” in the international freight forwarding industry. Each party involved has to stick to strict timelines for a number of reasons, but most often because the next step of a major undertaking can only proceed once a certain component has arrived.

The term heavy lift shipping is a reference to the fact that many breakbulk vessels are equipped with heavy lift cranes specifically designed so they can offload the cargo they are carrying without needing to use a mobile or onshore crane. This saves the shipper money as they don’t have to hire additional specialized equipment to assist with the on-or offloading process or wait until the onshore crane in a port is available to use.

Source: American Export Lines – Crated Turbine Loaded as Breakbulk on board Container Vessel

Source: FlickrWooden beams being prepared for loading onto a ship

Source: Flickr – Aluminum ingots being unloaded at Talleyrand Marine Terminal

What’s the difference between bulk and breakbulk shipping?

There are many who might get confused between all the different terms when it comes to shipping because these terms often refer to things that are very similar. Bulk shipping and breakbulk shipping both refer to shipping large quantities of items without using intermodal ISO shipping containers.

The term bulk shipping refers to cargo that is loaded directly into the transport vessel in loose form. In other words, they’re not backed into any sort of standardized container before being loaded onto a transport vehicle. With liquid bulk shipping, items like crude or vegetable oil, wine, fresh water, and other liquids are shipped across the world in specially designed tankers.

With dry bulk shipping, items that include sugar, salt, sand, cement, grain, and others are transported directly in the hold of a ship, train, or other transport vehicles. Breakbulk shipping also refers to bulk shipping, however, breakbulk items are loaded and transported individually, often on a skid, pallet, or in a crate.

Source: Flickr – Mining equipment being loaded for shipping to the East South Central of USA

The history of breakbulk shipping

In the earliest days of shipping, any cargo transported across the ocean was usually breakbulk. Back in the days when goods first started being transported around the globe, they would get loaded and offloaded one at a time. With ships, the crew often assisted with this process, while with trucks or trains there were teams waiting at the receiving end to do the offloading.

On ships, the hold would get divided into sections and goods were placed in designated areas. Creates, pallets, barrels of wine and oil, and bags of grain would all be shipped on the same vessel but they would be kept apart. There was a specific system for how goods were loaded as well. Certain items were always near the center, and certain items couldn’t be packed next to each other.

However, by the late 1960s more efficient methods and secure shipping containers had been designed. They quickly became the preferred method of shipping. These days breakbulk is most often reserved for any cargo that is too heavy or large to fit in a standard container.

Source: Wikimedia Commons – Stevedores preparing breakbulk cargo for loading, 1912

Benefits of breakbulk shipping

Source: Wikimedia Commons – Oversized machinery loaded on a flat platform for transport via rail

There are many reasons why people prefer breakbulk shipping over the many other options available to them, and here are just a few of the main ones:

  • The most obvious one is that it’s not necessary to break oversized cargo down into smaller shipments. The alternative is for the item to be disassembled, packed, shipped (often with multiple ships or vehicles), offloaded, delivered and reassembled at the final destination.

  • Another benefit is that the majority of ports around the world are equipped to deal with breakbulk shipping, while there are still many that have not been modernized enough to load and offload containers.

  • Companies that manufacture large machinery such as turbines, transformers, construction equipment, out of gauge manufacturing materials, turbine blades, generators, ship propellers, as well as oversized vehicles, boats, cranes and more can ship their goods to any part of the world without needing to have technicians at the final destination who will reassemble it.

  • The paperwork involved in breakbulk shipping is also simpler. Because containers can carry a variety of goods, there are several bills of lading for each one. However, with breakbulk, the whole shipment needs only one bill of lading.

Drawbacks of breakbulk shipping

There aren’t many cons to breakbulk shipping, however, a notable one is the fact that it is often more expensive. Because large cargo often takes up more space than items in neat, identical and stackable containers, it costs more to ship. Breakbulk items also may have special stowage and lashing requirements that require feasibility studies and sometimes months of preparation due to their unwieldy size and shape. Additionally, there are terminal charges that can vary considerably due to the timing of deliveries and availability of stevedores (terminal operators) to unload and discharge your cargo to the terminal floor.

Ships and other vessels used for breakbulk shipping are often outfitted with special cranes and other special equipment designed to accommodate these types of loads. Attempting to ship heavy or oversized (aka over-dimensional) items isn’t as easy as it is with standardized cargo but there are companies like ours that are more than capable and always ready to help with handling every step of your shipping project.

Explore your breakbulk shipping options with us today

SHIPIT Logistics® is a global logistics company that offers international freight forwarding, warehousing, customs brokerage, logistics, and transportation consulting services to companies around the world. We can work closely with you to assess the best breakbulk shipping options for your out of gauge item and offer practical, cost-effective solutions to keep your goods moving.

With our years of expertise and the equipment available to us, we can help you move almost anything to just about any corner of the world. If you would like to discuss our breakbulk shipping options then please contact us or request a quote.



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