INTERMEDIATE bulk containers (IBCs) have become an integral link in the distribution chain for many food processors, chemical companies, and lubricants manufacturers. IBCs also present growing opportunities for tank truck carriers, commercial tank wash operators, and tank repair shops.
IBCs, also called totes, have been around for many years. They were developed as an alternative to drums and are one of the packagings approved for hazardous materials shipments. Besides transport applications, IBCs have found a niche in storage.
It's hard to say exactly how many IBCs are now in circulation, but it is estimated that at least 500,000 totes are cleaned annually now. Based on current turn rates, the total population may be as much as four times the cleaning total.
Regardless of the total numbers, IBCs have become prevalent enough to catch the attention of tank truck carriers as well as numerous commercial wash rack operators. Manfredi Motor Transit Company has made one of the largest commitments to totes by developing a 45,000-square-foot dedicated cleaning facility in Cleveland, Ohio.
"We got into this in 1986 after a big shipper of coatings asked us to get involved," says Richard J Manfredi, president. "We started out small and found that totes were a relatively good fit for our operation. They don't interfere in any way with our tank fleet activities. "In fact, we believe that the tote services give us an edge with some of our customers. More of our shippers are calling for a one-stop source for transportation services. We believe tank fleets that offer tote services will benefit significantly."
Agreement comes from Andrew Zaleski, president and chief executive officer of Trimac Transportation Services Inc. "IBCs are part of the value-added package that we're trying to sell," he says. "We've found that IBC cleaning is a natural extension of our other tank cleaning activities, and we've set up a dedicated wash operation (in Oakville, Ontario, Canada)."
Most of the IBC customers served by Trimac and Manfredi Motor Transit are manufacturers of paints and coatings used in the automotive industry. For many of these manufacturers, paints and coatings are just one area in their product lineup, and they view IBCs from a broad perspective.
These manufacturers include DuPont Company, which uses IBCs for more than a thousand different products. About 45% of DuPont's IBC use is concentrated in North America, with Asia accounting for 25% and Europe for 20%. IBC shipments total less than 5% each in Africa, Australia, and South America.
"The IBC is the right package for certain shipments to certain destinations," says John W Snyder, packaging & logistics specialist for DuPont Specialty Chemicals. "It is a safe and practical container."
The current container mix for chemical shipments at DuPont is 35% tank trailers, 25% rail tank cars, 20% IBCs, and 20% drums. IBCs aren't used more due to domestic freight disadvantages, higher package costs, and small customer order quantities, Snyder says. In addition, some customer facilities can't handle IBCs.
"Handling difficulties seem more prevalent overseas," Snyder adds. "Our Asian customers tell us that disposal or recycling is easier with drums than with IBCs. It becomes a product stewardship issue."
Besides paints and coatings, DuPont ships a wide range of chemicals in IBCs. Flammables top the product list, which also includes corrosives, poisons, oxidizers, and nonregulated materials.
IBCs have become the packaging of choice for bulk liquid shipments by the Consumer Care Division of Ciba Specialty Chemicals Corporation North America. The division ships about 15,000 IBCs a year both domestically and internationally.
"For the domestic markets, IBCs are leased through a use-return-recycle program," says James W Hinson, manager of packaging and contract manufacturing for the Consumer Care Division. "The costs of inventory and disposal for our customers are eliminated. By recycling the IBCs, the environment is protected. Multiple use of the IBCs after refurbishing helps to reduce the cost of packaging.
"For export, we ship in either leased or new containers. When we send leased IBCs, we pay our container suppliers a surcharge for those not returned to the system. In either case, Ciba and our customers must deal with the empty IBC at the customer site."
As the terms used by Hinson indicate, IBCs are distinctly different from the types of liquid bulk transportation equipment typically handled by tank truck carriers. For instance, recycling and refurbishment refer to cleaning and general maintenance.
A wide variety of IBCs are in use, including stainless steel, aluminum, plastic, wooden, and flexible units. With the implementation of HM-215C, all types of IBCs, except for 13M1 and 13M2 multiwall paper bags, are now considered suitable for reuse.
In general, IBCs are designed to be handled by a fork truck, and they are transported on flatbeds or in van trailers. The containers have hardware that is similar to the components found on cargo tanks-domelids, pressure/vacuum-relief vents, and discharge valves.
They can be fitted with mixers to keep the contents stirred up. Heating coils and insulating jackets are available to help maintain product temperature in transit or during unloading. Maximum capacity for an IBC can't exceed 3,000 liters (793 gallons). The minimum is 450 liters (119 gallons).
With the chemical industry becoming more global all the time, shippers are looking for IBCs that can be used with a wide range of vehicles, according to Patrick Kirby, staff engineer, technical packaging at Clariant Corporation. Base dimensions should be 1200mm x 1000mm. IBCs must be stackable.
The use of soft and hard side trailers, as well as narrow and wide gauge rail equipment, necessitates a four-way-entry pallet. Plastic is becoming the tank material of choice because it provides cleanability, long life, and low cost. Chemical customer requirements for quick and easy valve hookups will promote standardization on quick-disconnect valves.
Totes that handle hazardous materials must be visually inspected prior to reuse to ensure that they are free from corrosion, contamination, cracks, or other damage that would render it unsafe for transportation. Proper markings must be in place before an IBC can be reused. At 2.5-year intervals, IBCs used to transport hazardous materials must be tested for leaks.
Only metal IBC tanks can be repaired. Tanks made of other materials must be replaced. Even with the additional care that is required for reusable IBCs, chemical companies believe they are the way of the future. "The chemical industry has a strong commitment to be progressive environmental stewards," Kirby says. "In order to fulfill this objective, we must know the cradle-to-grave status of all our packages."
Like others involved in the distribution of chemical products, Kirby acknowledges that drums are difficult, if not impossible, to track, especially in overseas markets. Reusable IBCs give the shippers greater control.
At the same time, managing IBCs can be a tedious task for chemical company distribution departments. Ongoing personnel reductions have left many of these departments thinly staffed, and they are anxious to offload the responsibilities to outside contractors.
One hope is that third parties will help find greater efficiencies in IBCs. For instance, an average turn ratio for many totes today is around 41/2 times a year. There is far too much waste and inefficiency, considering a stainless steel IBC can cost in excess of $5,000.
Kirby says, "The chemical industry needs full-service providers that will supply the IBC of choice, track IBCs globally, collect IBCs at customer facilities for return, recondition or dispose of returned IBCs, and handle IBC filling at plant or offsite locations.
"In order for you to be a contender in this marketplace, I believe you either need to provide all of these functions under your own umbrella or have strong partnerships and/or alliances that will allow one-stop shopping."
Tank container lessors, operators, and third-party depots may find that it makes sense to provide the international IBC management that the chemical companies are looking for. Companies in the tank container industry already have the global infrastructure in place in many cases.
Tank truck carriers and companies serving the tank truck and tank container industries have an opportunity to be active players in the IBC market in a number of areas, such as tank cleaning and repair.
As in real estate, the key considerations here are location, location, location. IBCs are a relatively low-value package, and they aren't going to be moved long distances just for cleaning and maintenance.
"You have to be careful in selecting the location of an IBC cleaning operation," Zaleski says. "You have to go where the companies are that are using the products shipped in IBCs. I see a geographic monopoly in this business."
For wash racks in the right place, the opportunity can bring significant amounts of new business. Zaleski points out that Trimac's dedicated IBC wash facility in Oakville, Ontario, cleans around 15,000 totes a year. That works out to about 65 a day.
The dedicated IBC wash operation at Manfredi Motor Transit is cleaning more than 150 totes a day, and the volume is expected to increase by 75% in the next six months. Metal totes predominate now, but the company predicts significant increases in plastic tote cleaning in the future.
"We expect to clean 1,500 to 2,000 plastic totes a month at our Cleveland facility," Manfredi says. "The industry hasn't even scratched the surface on the potential for plastic IBCs."
Trimac and Manfredi Motor Transit have several things in common in their approach to IBCs. They have their own vehicles for picking up dirty IBCs and returning the clean containers.
They built dedicated IBC cleaning facilities that are run separately from their tank fleet operations. These wash operations are tailored to the specific cleaning needs of IBCs.
The IBC program developed by Manfredi Motor Transit operates under the name Manfredi Special Services. The wholly owned subsidiary is part of the International Container Services marketing alliance that was established in partnership with Philip Services Corp. Besides IBC cleaning and maintenance, the alliance provides a variety of transportation and logistics services.
Manfredi Special Services runs a state-of-the-art computerized IBC cleaning facility, including a sophisticated wastewater treatment plant that handles about 30,000 gallons of water a day. High-pressure spinners ensure that all product residue is removed.
"IBC cleaning takes a real commitment," Manfredi says. "It's not for the faint hearted. I don't believe that converting a bay in an existing tank trailer wash rack is an effective strategy. There is only room for about six IBC stations in the typical 100-ft wash bay. As many as 25 stations may be needed for a viable IBC wash operation.
"Technology requirements are greater. Spinners are running at 2,000 psi and higher, because that's what it takes to remove residue that has had a month or more to set up. Injection cleaning systems put water and cleaning solutions in faster than gravity will allow them to drain. High-capacity pumps are a necessity. Filtered air must be used for IBC drying.
"A higher level of clean is required with IBCs. Totes are used for a lot of high-value products, and contaminants are more noticeable in a small vessel like this. Numerous rejections can spell disaster."
Large-capacity wastewater treatment systems are needed. Many of the IBCs cleaned by Manfredi Special Services arrive with about an inch ofheel. Typical IBC wash operations can generate as much waste as a four- to six-bay tank trailer cleaning facility.
With the IBC cleaning activity growing, Trimac and Manfredi Special Services are looking for ways to expand involvement with the containers. For instance, Manfredi Special Services is developing a computerized tracking system for totes.
Neither company has a great interest in adding transportation of filled IBCs. "While some shippers are asking us for more capabilities, there are too many companies already in the van transportation business," Zaleski says. "We might consider it if we had a specific request, but we would want a hard contract."
Manfredi adds that it is easier to drive a tank trailer than a tote. "We find that most of our customers are using the same dry freight carriers for totes as they have for drums and other packaged shipments," he says.
Tank truck carriers have taken over IBC filling responsibilities for some shippers. In many cases, the shippers also have handed over loading operations for tank trailers, tank containers, and even rail tankcars.
Shippers are contracting with tank truck carriers to refill IBCs that have been stationed at consignee locations. More shippers are using IBCs as storage at small customer locations, and the trend seems certain to grow.
Vegetable oil processor Mallet and Company Inc provides a good exam-ple. The Carnegie, Pennsylvania-based company supplies custom-blended vegetable oils to the baking and food processing industries.
IBCs have been used to shift customers out of drums. The IBC program was initiated in 1994 and has been a major success.
Cost is what convinces many Mallet customers to switch to bulk shipments. Salesmen for Mallet explain that each steel drum costs $22, or about five cents a pound for the product inside. Disposal can cost as much as $15 per drum.
IBCs cost significantly more than a drum, but they hold more and are refillable. The IBCs are either leased or sold to customers. Mallet has standardized on the Schutz Ecobulk modular system that consists of a plastic tank inside a heavy-duty wire frame. The 275- and 330-gallon units used by Mallet weigh 130 pounds empty. They can be stacked three high.
In most cases, the totes are refilled at the customer location. Mallet has outfitted one tractor with a portable delivery system that includes a Veeder-Root meter and register, Civacon Kamvalok dry disconnect coupling, Banjo fill nozzle, and 37 feet of 11/2-inch hose.
The tractor with the portable delivery system is paired with one of the four-compartment tank trailers in the fleet. The driver makes up to three stops a day and will fill 15 or more IBCs at a time. Deliveries generally take two to two-and-a-half hours.
While at the customer location, the driver inspects each tote. He will not fill an IBC that has damage to the plastic tank or is in need of cleaning. Maintenance is a shared responsibility, but it is up to the customers to have the IBCs cleaned. After a delivery, the driver seals the fill opening on each IBC.
It's clear that the role of the IBC is steadily increasing in the global marketplace. Tank truck and tank container companies have an opportunity to share in the IBC success.