Roughly 90% of all goods worldwide are shipped by sea, of which 70% is containerized cargo. This means that at some point in time, nearly everything that an end consumer purchases was very likely aboard a container vessel. In 2019, the maritime trade volume stood at 11 billion tons, 2.7% more than the year before. The average growth rate per year between 2019 – 2024 is estimated at 3.4% due to the growing global market. 

That said, not all cargo is containerized while being shipped to retailers or end-customers. An essential part of the shipped goods is, for example, raw materials for the industry, construction material, chemicals, or crude oil. Away from the general consumers, these bulk and break bulk markets face their own developing problems in the past years.

Breakbulk, bulk, and container – how cargo is shipped

 Almost any imaginable material or product can be shipped on a vessel. It is the most efficient and cheapest way to transport a vast quantity of goods from one place to another. Depending on the type of load, different types of vessels are prepared to transport, gear and unload them safely.

 There are two types of maritime cargo:

 General cargo is all kinds of load that is unitized and carried in defined load units. That includes break bulk, which refers to load carried in drums, bags, pallets, and boxes; neon bulk, such as lumber and paper, and containerized cargo, which includes all types of cargo that can be shipped in a container unit. For general bulk, transportation is mostly used geared, RoRo, or standard vessels.

The second type of maritime cargo is bulk cargo. This is further classified into liquid bulk – including, vegetal oil, chemicals, and petroleum LNG (liquified natural gas) and dry bulk such as coal, iron, grain, and sand. Liquid bulk ships are determined as tanks and are equipped with pumps and pipelines to transfer the load. Vessels that transport dry bulk are mostly equipped with grab and suction conveyors.

The different types of break bulk

A significant segment in sea transportation is the break bulk market. Heavy machinery, turbines, or wind farmers can be carried on a break bulk vessel globally. Break bulk is any individual piece of load that doesn’t fit into a container. This is not carried in bulk, but rather, unitized. It covers a wide range of cargo types like metal ingots, metal drums, grain bags, or large individual items except for vehicles.

Break bulk can be divided into two types:

Project cargo includes all the needed load for a specific construction project, like a port terminal. At the destination, the vessel provides all kinds of goods used for the project. This way, whole installations can be constructed, especially in emerging countries. 

Heavy lift cargo defines the upper end of the size spectrum of transported goods such as cranes, turbines, blades, or other big machinery types. A heavy-lift vessel must carry this kind of goods; for the smaller break bulk, multipurpose vessels (MPP) usually are used.

 The changing break bulk market

In the last 15 years, the break bulk market has changed drastically. The break bulk shipping is increasingly substituted by modern technology, and development happens across specific niches.

 The causes for the changing market are numerous. One problem arises from the decreasing demand from emerging nations. After the increasing development and demand for project cargo to build, for example, port terminals or sustainable energy sources, heavy-lift cargo shipping is not required anymore.

Other issues in the break bulk market include new technologies that replace cargo ships with cranes – like land cranes or floating cranes – that load and unload bulk cargo on standard cargo vessels.

In consequence, the MPP vessels are not in demand anymore for break bulk transportation.

For the shippers, this is highly cost-reducing as the MPP vessels are expensive and often complex to operate, as they are expected to haul disparate cargo, e.g., steel colts, unitized cargo, and yachts at the same time.

Also, break bulk vessels are substituted by RoRo vessels or pure car and truck vessels. The goods are loaded on a truck trailer carried by this kind of vessel, which is much cheaper. In essence, the nearer future outlook is a significantly decreasing break bulk market that continues to shrink to a much smaller niche than the one it currently represents.