What is an Intermediate Bulk Container (IBC)?
If you’ve ever worked for a manufacturing or shipping firm, chances are that you’ve encountered Intermediate Bulk Containers or IBCs.
The first IBC emerged in 1992 when an employee at a manufacturing firm sought an alternative to storing liquid and powdered materials in 200 litres drums. At its most basic, an IBC is a container attached to a pallet and surrounded by a protective metal cage, and the container typically features a lid and nozzle to easily fill and dispense material.
These massive, pallet-sized containers are commonly used in a wide range of industries for purposes that range from shipping and storage to waste collection. Different variations of the IBC have emerged as demand for these types of containers has grown, and while the original IBC design remains popular, IBCs now come in many shapes and sizes.
The following sections will, therefore, discuss basic information about IBCs, such as:
- The history of IBCs;
- The people and companies that use IBCs;
- Different types of IBCs;
- What IBCs are made of; and
- A market analysis for IBCs.
A Brief History of IBC Tanks
Currently, IBC tanks are widely used across many industries, but did you know that they were only invented a few decades ago?
The history of the IBC began with a man named Olivier J. L. D’Hollander. He worked at a manufacturing firm called Dow Corning S.A., which specialized in making silicone products.
In 1992, D’Hollander and his associates first came up with the idea for the IBC when they sought an alternative to 200 litres drums, which had been the industry standard for many years. Although these drums were sufficient to transport various liquid and powdered goods, they were difficult to fill and transport and their cylindrical shape made them inefficient for storage.
These issues inspired D’Hollander to create the first IBC, which strongly resembled today’s standard IBC. D’Hollander’s IBC was rectangular and pallet-mounted, and it also included a protective cage to ensure that the IBC’s contents would not spill or become damaged during transit. Overall, the first IBC solved many of the problems associated with using 200 litres drums, and D’Hollander patented his idea in 1993.
After the IBC was patented, it quickly became popular among industrial manufacturers. The IBC stored more material in less space than standard barrels, and their stackable, pallet-mounted shape made them efficient for storage and transport. Many industrial packaging companies thus began to manufacture and sell IBCs.
As more manufacturers began using IBCs, other industries—such as food manufacturing and waste removal—found new uses for them, and manufacturers had to adjust their products to meet this new demand. While some problems with IBCs arose as their use expanded, manufacturers responded by correcting these issues and offering solutions to meet their customers’ needs.
Who Uses IBCs?
Although the IBC was originally invented at an industrial manufacturing firm, many other industries quickly adopted the use of this container for storing, shipping, and dispensing liquid, powdered, and other materials.
Today, IBCs are commonly used in the following industries:
- Chemical manufacturing;
- Food production;
- Petroleum manufacturing;
- Disaster relief;
- Pharmaceutical manufacturing;
- Water and wastewater collection and storage;
- Waste collection and storage;
- Beauty and personal care.
In many of these industries, IBCs are the standard container for storage and shipping, and their use continues to expand today.
Types of IBC Tanks
As companies in more industries adopted IBCs as their primary method of storage and transportation, various kinds of IBC tanks have emerged as manufacturers adapt to their clients’ various needs.
At their most basic, IBCs can be divided into two types—rigid IBCs and flexible IBCs. Rigid IBCs are made of inflexible materials meant to withstand heavy-duty use whereas flexible IBCs are collapsible and designed to be as compact as possible.
In addition to rigid and flexible IBCs, many companies also produce IBCs that are specifically designed for a particular industry or purpose. For instance, most major IBC manufacturers offer food-grade IBCs that meet the food production industry’s high safety standards.
The following section will, therefore, discuss each of these categories as well as common types of IBCs found within them.
Rigid IBCs are the most common type of IBC on the market. These IBCs are designed to maintain their shape during storage and transport, so they are often made of hard plastics and metals with a wood, plastic, or hybrid base.
Rigid IBCs are typically used for shipping liquids across long distances and storing them for long periods. Their design allows them to maintain the integrity of the container and its contents while stacked in shipping containers or warehouses. Therefore, this type of IBC is used in a wide variety of industries, including food storage, chemical manufacturing, and water distribution.
The first flexible IBCs (or FIBCs) emerged in the 1940s—nearly 50 years before the first rigid IBC went on the market—and initially took the form of woven polyethylene bags. As these FIBCs became more popular in industries such as landscaping and construction, manufacturers began to seek ways to make this type of container more durable, and the first modern FIBC was made in the 1970s.
Modern FIBCs feature a woven bag that becomes cube-shaped when it is filled, and on each bag, there is a discharge spout at the bottom that enables users to easily dispense material. They are also completely collapsible when they are empty, so they are easy to transport when they are not full. These containers are often used to ship granular material, such as concrete mix or sand.
FIBCs are also frequently used in disaster relief to create temporary levees and shelters. When filled with sand or similar material, they act as “bricks” for these purposes.
Industry- and Task-Specific IBCs
In addition to rigid and flexible IBCs, many industrial packaging firms also produce IBCs that are specifically suited to particular tasks or industries. These types of tanks often feature a slew of custom options that appeal to clients with certain needs.
IBCs for Food Storage
In food production, all storage containers must adhere to strict safety standards, so many manufacturers will build and sell IBCs that are specifically designed to adhere to those regulations. The food industry typically uses IBCs to store and dispense liquids, such as syrups or beverages, or powdered ingredients, such as flour.
The majority of food-grade IBCs are made of stainless steel, which is easy to clean and generally meets food safety standards. However, in some cases, food-grade plastics or flexible fiber containers may also fall under this category. Additionally, many IBCs for the food industry are mounted to plastic or hybrid pallets instead of traditional wooden ones. All food-safe IBCs are inspected by regulators before shipment to ensure that they can safely store food.
Rebottled Water Totes
Rebottled IBC totes, or caged water tanks, are designed to hold large amounts of water for drinking or other purposes, and their containers are made of materials that will not contaminate this freshwater. These tanks typically include specialized valves to facilitate easy pouring, and they typically use UV-stabilized plastic to resist damage from the sun.
IBCs are widely used to hold industrial chemicals, so manufacturers often offer specially-designed containers for potentially toxic chemicals. These IBCs generally have features, such as extra insulation, to prevent chemical leakage, and all chemical-grade IBCs meet rigorous government and industry safety standards.
Like chemical IBCs, pharmaceutical IBCs must meet rigorous safety and sanitation standards, so manufacturers often offer containers specifically designed for these purposes. Many of the features on these products are similar to chemical IBCs, but some include added safety features for controlled substances and medication disposal.
Car manufacturers and mechanics often use IBCs to store large quantities of paint, oil, gasoline, and similar products. Many of these products emit fumes and are flammable, so manufacturers offer products specifically designed to prevent leaks and be flame-retardant. Additionally, some IBC firms offer specific valves and nozzles that dispense specific quantities of a particular product.
Some products, such as molasses or biofuels, must be rapidly heated, so IBC manufacturers also offer heated tanks to store and dispense these products. All heated IBCs allow users to monitor the temperature of the product to ensure it is heated to the correct temperature and to avoid accidents caused by overheating.
What are IBCs Made of?
In general, most IBCs are comprised of three main parts—a tank, a pallet base, and a protective cage. These parts are typically made of a handful of standard materials.
An IBC tank can be made of a variety of components, but it is most commonly made of strong plastic or polyethylene. This hard plastic is generally ideal for transporting liquids without leakage, and it can be easily reinforced to prevent fumes from escaping.
IBC tanks can also be made from plastic-metal composites, carbon steel, or stainless steel. Plastic-metal composites are typically used to make a stronger IBC that still resists static. Stainless steel, on the other hand, is often used for food-grade IBCs since it is easy to clean and generally meets food safety standards. Likewise, carbon steel can also be used for food-safe IBCs, but it is substantially more lightweight than stainless steel.
An IBC’s pallet base is typically made from wood, plastic, or a wood-plastic hybrid. Wood pallet bases are most common due to their ubiquity in shipping. They are relatively cheap to make and withstand long-haul shipping. Plastic pallet bases are not as sturdy, but they are frequently used in food-grade IBCs because they are easier to clean and meet rigid industry safety standards.
Wood-plastic hybrid pallets offer the best of both worlds. These pallets are sturdy and able to handle multiple shipments, and they can be cleaned to meet food safety requirements. However, since the material is hybrid, these bases can be more expensive than simple wood or plastic ones.
Finally, the reinforced cage on an IBC is often made from metal or a metal alloy. Most IBC manufacturers use steel since it is sturdy and cheap. However, static-resistant IBCs may use a plastic-metal hybrid, and some IBCs may omit the cage entirely.
Flexible IBCs utilize similar materials to create flexible and durable storage containers. Like their rigid counterparts, FIBCs primarily utilize plastic as their base material, so a typical FIBC will be made of woven polyethylene or polypropylene.
However, a handful of other materials can also be used to create FIBCs. Wood or fiberboard—a low-density wood composite—are often used to create a more structurally sound FIBC, and likewise, some manufacturers offer aluminum FIBCs as an alternative to woven plastic or wood. FIBCs can also be made of folding plastic, which allows these containers to maintain their structure while shipping material.
Market Analysis for IBCs
Overall, the market for Intermediate Bulk Containers is quite strong. These popular containers are efficient, easy to customize, and available at numerous price points, making them attractive to many types of companies.
The IBC became popular among manufacturers because of its utilitarian design and multifunctionality. These containers are purposefully designed to store as much material as possible in a compact vat, and their sturdy construction enables them to withstand long-haul shipments and heavy use.
Additionally, many manufacturers offer industry-oriented IBCs as well as custom features that allow buyers to create the perfect IBC for their needs. Many manufacturers offer custom suites of features that are geared toward buyers with certain requirements.
Another factor that makes IBCs appealing to consumers is their wide range of price points. A standard new 1000 litres rigid IBC has a higher price. A washed (or pre-used) IBC, on the other hand, is less pricey, and a refurbished IBC with a new bottle is literally cheaper. Prices for custom IBCs vary depending on the size and features of the container.
Flexible IBCs are substantially cheaper than rigid ones. Added features like a drawstring top, spout, or lining can add up to the price of each FIBC, yet remaining cheap. Therefore, companies that opt to ship solid goods that are not particularly environmentally sensitive will often opt for this type of IBC.
Finally, IBC manufacturers have historically responded well to challenges with its product. For example, when food industry clients experienced problems with IBC sanitation, the industrial packaging industry responded by creating IBCs specifically crafted to meet rigid food safety standards. This level of innovation on the part of IBC manufacturers has made this industry particularly dynamic and responsive to client needs.
Although a variety of industries use IBCs, certain industries are more reliant on IBCs than others. The industries that most frequently use rigid IBCs are:
- Chemical manufacturers;
- Food producers;
- Pharmaceutical companies;
- General storage.
Industries that most frequently use flexible IBCs include:
- Disaster relief;
- Food producers;
- General storage.
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