IBCs (International Bulk Containers) have long been utilised for storing and transporting bulk liquids and powders.
Considered more durable than cardboard boxes or wood pallets and containers, yet smaller and easier to manage than shipping containers, these intermediate-sized options are ideal for bulky or heavy items.
Even within the IBC category, however, there are many container options based on type of material (wood, plastic, tubular steel, aluminum or steel) as well as types (rigid, folding and flexible).
With so many choices, carving out a niche can be difficult, but that is the case with new options in collapsible, reusable IBC containers made of galvanized steel.
Having none of the disadvantages of wood and with more durability than plastic alternatives, these containers supply more durability and longevity over thousands of trips in closed or open loop systems.
Fully collapsible, these containers can be erected or dismantled in less than a minute and require a fraction of the return storage space, reducing costs. The steel walls provided added strength so containers can be stacked up to four high.
Now available through lease programs provided by third parties that deliver, pick-up, clean and return containers where needed, collapsible steel IBCs can deliver considerable costs savings – as well as a reduction in carbon footprint.
Comparing the Options
The cost of traditional, single-use wood crates can quickly add up in terms of construction, tear down and disposal.
Wood crates are often constructed and secured using nails, screws or banding, and not meant for reuse. In such cases, workers typically tear down and dispose of the old crate after use. This not only adds disposal and landfill costs but also raises safety issues when handling potentially exposed nails etc. Constructing a new crate, of course, adds a significant expense in terms of materials and labor each time one is required.
Since wood is relatively soft, porous and will absorb moisture, it also does not always offer sufficient protection from rough handling, water, mold, rot or insects. Wood can also splinter and warp. For these reasons, cleaning and refurbishing wood crates or containers can be costly.
Because of these factors, manufacturers in recurring distribution arrangements with suppliers, distributors or retailers often find that reusable bulk containers can reduce supply chain transport costs.
While the initial cost of returnable crates is more than conventional limited use ones, the savings start to mount as the crate is reused.
When also collapsible, or foldable, such crates require minimal return storage space, which further reduces the unit cost and environmental impact of transport.
Within this category, there are several options. Plastic, foldable IBCs have the advantage of being light and cleanable. However, plastic can be somewhat brittle and subject to breakage, which makes it less suitable for heavy loads or potential impact by forklifts, etc.
For bulk reusable shipping applications, metal containers are the most durable, impact resistant materials and offer the lowest cost per use capabilities, along with reduced environmental impact.
One example is a reusable steel intermediate bulk container called the Green Fleet, offered by Murphy Industrial Products, Inc. The third-party container company also manages the entire process of delivery, cleaning and return.
The IBC can be loaded to more than 3,300 lbs., or a volume of over 98,000 cubic inches per unit. Furthermore, the containers are sized so that when stacked 2-high fit precisely in standard 20' and 40' intermodal freight containers to maximize the space and volume.
The coated steel is designed to be resistant to forklift impact and is non-porous so there is no chance of mold, rot, fungi or insects like with wood.
Because efficient cargo hauling of both full and empty containers is vital to reduce the cost of shipping, the ability to collapse empty reusable containers in order to occupy less cargo space is an important industry innovation.
In the case of the reusable Green Fleet crates, for instance, the 58"x45"x43"containers collapse flat to about 7", a ratio of about 6:1, which allows 192 to be returned empty in a 40' container.
"While the container is not the only industry design that flattens to save space, what makes it particularly effective in terms of labor savings is how a worker can assemble or remove the side panels in about 30 seconds," says Len Kobeski, Design Engineer at Murphy Industrial. "In comparison, it may take a couple of minutes to open a traditional crate and several times that to disassemble and dispose it."
Another potential use for these IBC containers is for stackable storage. These containers have enough structural strength to make pallet racking unnecessary in some warehouse or temporary storage applications.
According to Kobeski, the Green Fleet crates, for instance, can be safely stacked four high, fully-loaded. To prevent theft, each container is equipped with a safety lock system.
He adds that the detachable sidewall design can also enhance access to items within the container even when stacked.
"Unlike some stackable containers which must be unstacked before product can be accessed, two removable doors on each unit allow product access without unstacking," says Kobeski. "This enables the stacked containers to be used for product storage and order picking."
In addition to saving on costs, reusable IBCs are also a "greener" approach to shipping.
Wood crates and containers that must be destroyed when opened, or require replacing of damage or warped wood to be re-used, increase waste and add to landfills. In addition, the cost of wood is slowly continuing to rise.
More durable IBCs that can be re-used for thousands of deliveries dramatically reduce the number of containers that must be manufactured. Then when they do finally reach the end of their usable lifespans, the units are melted down and made into new IBCs, which further reduces cost and lowers the corporate carbon footprint.