What is break-bulk?

Break bulk is a form of shipping where cargo is bundled into bales, boxes, drums, or crates that must be loaded individually. Common break bulk items include wool, steel, cement, construction equipment, vehicles, and any other item that is oversized. While container shipping became more popular in the 1960s, break bulk shipping remains and offers several benefits. It tends to be more affordable since bulky items do not need to be disassembled. What’s more, break bulk carriers can call in at more ports than container ships.

Understanding break bulk

Break bulk is a form of shipping where cargo is bundled into bales, boxes, drums, or crates that must be loaded individually.

Break bulk is named after the somewhat antiquated term breaking bulk which describes the extraction of a portion of cargo from a ship or the start of the unloading process itself.

In a more modern context, break bulk describes cargo transported in bales, boxes, pallets, drums, crates, and bags. Note that to be considered break bulk, this cargo cannot be loaded in containers or in bulk as is the case with goods such as iron ore, coal, or grain. Instead, it must be loaded on an individual basis.

This method of loading ships was commonplace up until around the 1960s when container shipping started to become more popular. While there are obvious benefits to containerization in terms of speed and efficiency, there remain situations today where break bulk is still useful. For example, break bulk is sometimes used to transport goods to ships that are considered too large for shallow ports.

Common break bulk cargo

Break bulk cargo is transported to the quay next to the ship and then each item is lifted onto the ship by a heavy-duty crane. Once onboard, the item must also be separately stowed and secured. 

Some examples of cargo that is shipped in this way include:

  • Construction equipment, vehicles, and vehicle components.
  • Steel girders and structural steel.
  • Baled commodities such as wool, paper, tobacco, rubber, and furs.
  • Bagged or sacked goods such as sugar, cement, flour, and milk powder.
  • Corrugated and wooden boxes.
  • Any item that is long, heavy, or oversized.
  • Hazardous materials that must be separated from other goods.

Break bulk ships

There are three types of ships that are utilized for break bulk goods, including:

  1. Break bulk carriers.
  2. Multi-purpose carriers, and
  3. General cargo vessels.

Each of these types also comes in a variety of sizes, including single-decker, tween decker, and box hold. Size is quantified by deadweight (DWT), or the weight the ship can transport without sustaining damage or sinking. Break bulk ship sizes tend to range from 2,000 to 40,000 DWT.

Break bulk ships are also said to be:

  • Gearless – these ships do not possess cargo handling equipment and/or cranes. As a result, they are limited to terminals that do. In some cases, specialized barges with high deck strength may be required to facilitate the loading of cargo.
  • Geared – these ships do possess the necessary break bulk equipment and have more choice in terms of the ports or terminals they can utilize.

Advantages of break bulk shipping

While break bulk is no longer the dominant form of shipping, it does have the following advantages:

  • Affordability – for shipping companies that require cargo to be transported to and from ports over land, the transportation of break bulk items is more affordable than container transportation. Since break bulk items do not need to be separated into pieces to be shipped, it also tends to be more affordable for companies with oversized cargo.
  • Flexibility – as hinted at earlier, break bulk items are deliverable to more ports around the world since not all ports have facilities for loading and unloading containers. Geared break bulk ships that carry their own cranes and equipment have even more flexibility in terms of port choice.
  • Efficiency – in general, break bulk shipping is more efficient than container shipping in terms of the paperwork involved. Since containers carry multiple goods, this necessitates several bills of lading per container. Break bulk shipping, on the other hand, only requires one bill of lading per shipment.

Key Highlights

  • Break Bulk Overview:
    • Break bulk shipping involves bundling cargo into individual units like bales, boxes, drums, or crates that are loaded individually onto ships.
    • This method contrasts with container shipping and bulk cargo, and it was more common before the rise of containerization.
  • Common Break Bulk Cargo:
    • Break bulk cargo includes construction equipment, vehicles, steel, baled commodities (wool, paper), bagged goods (sugar, cement), boxes, oversized items, and hazardous materials.
  • Types of Break Bulk Ships:
    • Three types of ships are used for break bulk cargo: break bulk carriers, multi-purpose carriers, and general cargo vessels.
    • Sizes vary based on deadweight (DWT), with ranges from 2,000 to 40,000 DWT.
  • Break Bulk Ship Types:
    • Gearless Ships: These lack cargo handling equipment and rely on terminals with such equipment. Specialized barges might be needed for loading cargo.
    • Geared Ships: These have their own equipment, including cranes, offering more flexibility in port choices.
  • Advantages of Break Bulk Shipping:
    • Affordability: Break bulk shipping is cost-effective for cargo transported over land to and from ports. Oversized cargo benefits from not needing to be disassembled.
    • Flexibility: Break bulk allows delivery to more ports that lack container facilities. Geared ships have further flexibility due to their equipment.
    • Efficiency: Break bulk shipping involves less paperwork compared to container shipping, as each shipment requires only one bill of lading.

Key Takeaways:

  • Break bulk shipping involves loading cargo individually onto ships, separate from containers or bulk cargo.
  • Break bulk items can include various goods like construction equipment, vehicles, steel, commodities, and oversized items.
  • Different types of break bulk ships are used, either gearless or geared, offering flexibility in port choices.
  • Break bulk shipping is advantageous due to its affordability, flexibility in port selection, and efficiency in paperwork.

Read Next: Cross-DockingSupply ChainAI Supply ChainMetaverse Supply ChainCostco Business Model.

Connected Business Concepts And Frameworks

Supply Chain

The supply chain is the set of steps between the sourcing, manufacturing, distribution of a product up to the steps it takes to reach the final customer. It’s the set of step it takes to bring a product from raw material (for physical products) to final customers and how companies manage those processes.

Data Supply Chains

A classic supply chain moves from upstream to downstream, where the raw material is transformed into products, moved through logistics and distribution to final customers. A data supply chain moves in the opposite direction. The raw data is “sourced” from the customer/user. As it moves downstream, it gets processed and refined by proprietary algorithms and stored in data centers.


Distribution represents the set of tactics, deals, and strategies that enable a company to make a product and service easily reachable and reached by its potential customers. It also serves as the bridge between product and marketing to create a controlled journey of how potential customers perceive a product before buying it.

Distribution Channels

A distribution channel is the set of steps it takes for a product to get in the hands of the key customer or consumer. Distribution channels can be direct or indirect. Distribution can also be physical or digital, depending on the kind of business and industry.

Vertical Integration

In business, vertical integration means a whole supply chain of the company is controlled and owned by the organization. Thus, making it possible to control each step through customers. in the digital world, vertical integration happens when a company can control the primary access points to acquire data from consumers.

Horizontal vs. Vertical Integration

Horizontal integration refers to the process of increasing market shares or expanding by integrating at the same level of the supply chain, and within the same industry. Vertical integration happens when a company takes control of more parts of the supply chain, thus covering more parts of it.

Horizontal Market

By definition, a horizontal market is a wider market, serving various customer types, needs and bringing to market various product lines. Or a product that indeed can serve various buyers across different verticals. Take the case of Google, as a search engine that can serve various verticals and industries (education, publishing, e-commerce, travel, and much more).

Vertical Market

A vertical or vertical market usually refers to a business that services a specific niche or group of people in a market. In short, a vertical market is smaller by definition, and it serves a group of customers/products that can be identified as part of the same group. A search engine like Google is a horizontal player, while a travel engine like Airbnb is a vertical player.

Entry Strategies

When entering the market, as a startup you can use different approaches. Some of them can be based on the product, distribution, or value. A product approach takes existing alternatives and it offers only the most valuable part of that product. A distribution approach cuts out intermediaries from the market. A value approach offers only the most valuable part of the experience.

Backward Chaining

Backward chaining, also called backward integration, describes a process where a company expands to fulfill roles previously held by other businesses further up the supply chain. It is a form of vertical integration where a company owns or controls its suppliers, distributors, or retail locations.

Market Types

A market type is a way a given group of consumers and producers interact, based on the context determined by the readiness of consumers to understand the product, the complexity of the product; how big is the existing market and how much it can potentially expand in the future.

Market Analysis

Psychosizing is a form of market analysis where the size of the market is guessed based on the targeted segments’ psychographics. In that respect, according to psychosizing analysis, we have five types of markets: microniches, niches, markets, vertical markets, and horizontal markets. Each will be shaped by the characteristics of the underlying main customer type.


According to the book, Unlocking The Value Chain, Harvard professor Thales Teixeira identified three waves of disruption (unbundling, disintermediation, and decoupling). Decoupling is the third wave (2006-still ongoing) where companies break apart the customer value chain to deliver part of the value, without bearing the costs to sustain the whole value chain.


Disintermediation is the process in which intermediaries are removed from the supply chain, so that the middlemen who get cut out, make the market overall more accessible and transparent to the final customers. Therefore, in theory, the supply chain gets more efficient and, all in all, can produce products that customers want.


Reintermediation consists in the process of introducing again an intermediary that had previously been cut out from the supply chain. Or perhaps by creating a new intermediary that once didn’t exist. Usually, as a market is redefined, old players get cut out, and new players within the supply chain are born as a result.


As startups gain control of new markets. They expand in adjacent areas in disparate and different industries by coupling the new activities to benefits customers. Thus, even though the adjunct activities might see far from the core business model, they are tied to the way customers experience the whole business model.

Bullwhip Effect

The bullwhip effect describes the increasing fluctuations in inventory in response to changing consumer demand as one moves up the supply chain. Observing, analyzing, and understanding how the bullwhip effect influences the whole supply chain can unlock important insights into various parts of it.


Dropshipping is a retail business model where the dropshipper externalizes the manufacturing and logistics and focuses only on distribution and customer acquisition. Therefore, the dropshipper collects final customers’ sales orders, sending them over to third-party suppliers, who ship directly to those customers. In this way, through dropshipping, it is possible to run a business without operational costs and logistics management.


Consumer-to-manufacturer (C2M) is a model connecting manufacturers with consumers. The model removes logistics, inventory, sales, distribution, and other intermediaries enabling consumers to buy higher quality products at lower prices. C2M is useful in any scenario where the manufacturer can react to proven, consolidated, consumer-driven niche demand.


Transloading is the process of moving freight from one form of transportation to another as a shipment moves down the supply chain. Transloading facilities are staged areas where freight is swapped from one mode of transportation to another. This may be indoors or outdoors, depending on the transportation modes involved. Deconsolidation and reconsolidation are two key concepts in transloading, where larger freight units are broken down into smaller pieces and vice versa. These processes attract fees that a company pays to maintain the smooth operation of its supply chain and avoid per diem fees.


Break bulk is a form of shipping where cargo is bundled into bales, boxes, drums, or crates that must be loaded individually. Common break bulk items include wool, steel, cement, construction equipment, vehicles, and any other item that is oversized. While container shipping became more popular in the 1960s, break bulk shipping remains and offers several benefits. It tends to be more affordable since bulky items do not need to be disassembled. What’s more, break bulk carriers can call in at more ports than container ships.


Cross-docking is a procedure where goods are transferred from inbound to outbound transport without a company handling or storing those goods. Cross-docking methods include continuous, consolidation, and de-consolidation. There are also two types of cross-docking according to whether the customer is known or unknown before goods are distributed. Cross-docking has obvious benefits for virtually any industry, but it is especially useful in food and beverage, retail and eCommerce, and chemicals.

Toyota Production System

The Toyota Production System (TPS) is an early form of lean manufacturing created by auto-manufacturer Toyota. Created by the Toyota Motor Corporation in the 1940s and 50s, the Toyota Production System seeks to manufacture vehicles ordered by customers most quickly and efficiently possible.

Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating errors or defects in a product, service, or process. Six Sigma was developed by Motorola as a management approach based on quality fundamentals in the early 1980s. A decade later, it was popularized by General Electric who estimated that the methodology saved them $12 billion in the first five years of operation.

Scientific Management

Scientific Management Theory was created by Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 as a means of encouraging industrial companies to switch to mass production. With a background in mechanical engineering, he applied engineering principles to workplace productivity on the factory floor. Scientific Management Theory seeks to find the most efficient way of performing a job in the workplace.


Poka-yoke is a Japanese quality control technique developed by former Toyota engineer Shigeo Shingo. Translated as “mistake-proofing”, poka-yoke aims to prevent defects in the manufacturing process that are the result of human error. Poka-yoke is a lean manufacturing technique that ensures that the right conditions exist before a step in the process is executed. This makes it a preventative form of quality control since errors are detected and then rectified before they occur.

Gemba Walk

A Gemba Walk is a fundamental component of lean management. It describes the personal observation of work to learn more about it. Gemba is a Japanese word that loosely translates as “the real place”, or in business, “the place where value is created”. The Gemba Walk as a concept was created by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System of lean manufacturing. Ohno wanted to encourage management executives to leave their offices and see where the real work happened. This, he hoped, would build relationships between employees with vastly different skillsets and build trust.


Jidoka was first used in 1896 by Sakichi Toyoda, who invented a textile loom that would stop automatically when it encountered a defective thread. Jidoka is a Japanese term used in lean manufacturing. The term describes a scenario where machines cease operating without human intervention when a problem or defect is discovered.

Andon System

The andon system alerts managerial, maintenance, or other staff of a production process problem. The alert itself can be activated manually with a button or pull cord, but it can also be activated automatically by production equipment. Most Andon boards utilize three colored lights similar to a traffic signal: green (no errors), yellow or amber (problem identified, or quality check needed), and red (production stopped due to unidentified issue).

Read Also: Vertical Integration, Horizontal Integration, Supply Chain.

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