The Anatomy of an IBC
The IBC, also called an Intermediate Bulk Container, is a reusable, industrial-strength container designed for the facilitated transport of a wide variety of materials. A clear example of innovation in the shipping industry, the IBC was created to optimize shipping space while minimizing the weight of shipping containers. This optimization is a clear example of the benefits of supply chain management and ensures that every step in the shipping process saves valuable money for both the shipper and the consumer. With a wide variety of designs and purposes, IBCs provide a shipping option for every manufacturing need. Read on to learn more about the various types of IBCs, the materials used to manufacture them, and the uses and benefits of these unique shipping containers.
What is an Intermediate Bulk Container?
Introduction to IBCs
People have been looking to optimize shipping methods since the industrialization of shipping materials and goods. Early designs for shipping containers, such as wooden barrels and metal drums, were made of dense materials, too heavy for efficient shipping, and limited the amount of goods that could be shipped in each trip. Additionally, early designs often utilized rounded shapes, resulting in containers that did not stack well and wasted excessive space. Due to its cubic shape and versatility in material, the IBC solved all these problems.
For a shipping container to be deemed an IBC, it must possess several characteristics. First, it must be generally cubic in shape for maximum efficiency in stacking and shipping. Second, it must be equipped with a pallet piece or loops, allowing it to be transferable by a pallet jack or forklift. Third, it must fall into a specific range of both size and storage capacity, truly earning it the title of an intermediate storage container.
Though the exact size can vary, most IBCs are about 45 in. x 45 in. in size with varying heights. This size standard allows them to be packed tightly and ship more goods than a traditional pallet system using the same space. Additionally, most can hold between 750-1200 litres of fluid, though the number could be as few as 400 litres and as many as 3000 litres. Beyond these size limitations, IBCs can be found in a variety of designs and made from a variety of materials. Manufacturers regularly use them to transport liquids, solids, and everything in between. Despite their wide ranges in design and purpose, all IBCs fall into one of two categories: Rigid IBCs and Flexible IBCs.
Introduction to Rigid IBCs
The concept of an IBC was patented in 1992 by Olivier J. L. D’Hollander, who at the time was working for Dow Corning S.A. While D’Hollander holds the patent for the modern IBC, the concept itself was inspired by a similar patent acquired by Dwight E. Nicols for Hoover Group, Inc. which described a fold-up wireframe containing a plastic bottle. These are technically the earliest examples of patents for IBC-like containers, but manufacturers have been researching optimization methods for shipping and implementing the efficient designs for much longer. This gradual modification eventually resulted in the modern Rigid IBC (RIBC).
An RIBC is a cube-shaped shipping container that is not designed to have any flexibility while being transported. This makes it ideal for shipping things that are liquid or semi-liquid in nature, such as chemicals and food-related syrups. Currently, there is a wide variety of styles of RIBC, allowing consumers to choose a style most fitting to their product. Most styles are made of plastic, metal, or a combination of the two. Each RIBC is high quality, industrial, and sturdy. The rigidity of the container comes from both the lining bottle itself, which is usually made of plastic, as well as the surrounding cage or attached pallet, which can be made from a wide variety of materials.
Consumers also have multiple choices regarding the quality and price point of the RIBC. An RIBC can be purchased as a new unit, a rebottled unit (which has a new bottle and an old cage), or a washed unit (where both the cage and the bottle have been washed). The washed unit is the least expensive, the new unit is the most expensive, and the rebottled falls somewhere in between. Most consumers opt for a mix of the washed and rebottled unless the material shipped requires sterile shipping in a new container, such as products in the food industry.
Materials used in RIBC Production
Most RIBCs are created out of two or more parts. One part is the bottle or liner, and the other is the cage or pallet piece. The cage offers rigidity while the bottle is easy to remove and replace. The main materials used to create these pieces are:
- Plastic: The bottle is typically made of polyethylene (PE). Typically, this piece is made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE), the type of plastic used in milk containers. The increased length of the polymer chain in the molecule increases the strength of the plastic, ensuring that there is no leakage of product.
- Plastic metal composite: Composite materials, in this case, plastic and metal, resulting from the combination of two or more materials to create something that is different than either beginning material. Typically, this is used to reinforce a material while minimizing weight. Composite RIBCs provides the increased strength of the metal component without sacrificing the lightweight for shipping purposes.
- Carbon steel: This can refer to steel with a higher carbon content or a steel alloy. Using carbon steel minimizes the weight of the steel component, but also loses some of the flexibility of the metal. Carbon steel components break under less pressure than their pure steel counterparts.
- Stainless steel: This steel alloy incorporates a set amount of chromium. The combination of the two metals prevents corrosion, minimizing the risk of product contamination by rust.
Uses for an RIBC
Because of their compact shape and stiff structure, RIBCs are most typically used for the shipping of liquids. Other design features minimize sloshing of contained liquids, ensuring safer travel for liquids while shipping. Some of the materials most often shipped in RIBCs include:
- Clean water: RIBCs have been used to transport clean water in times of disaster or during health crises, ensuring that all volunteers and individuals who have been rescued have access to clean drinking water.
- Food syrups: Producers of syrups such as corn syrup, maple syrup, and molasses choose RIBCs because of the efficient shipping options as well as the food safe and sterile plastic used to line each one.
- Chemicals: Due to the sturdy nature of the liner and the easy replacement systems available, many chemical companies choose to transport their wares in RIBCs.
- Alcohols: Many wineries rely heavily on the use of RIBCs for the storage and transfer of materials used to make wine and beer as well as the finished products themselves.
Advantages of an RIBC
RIBCs offer the stability necessary to process and ship liquids of various kinds more efficiently than in tubs, tanks, or barrels. Recycling programs keep costs of shipping as low as possible and guarantee high-quality containers for less. Additionally, the attached spouts make for clean and easy pouring on the delivery end.
Introduction to Flexible IBCs
The earliest version of the Flexible IBC (FIBC) was seen in the 1940s. Made of PVC rubber, these shipping bags were instrumental in the shipping of materials needed to produce plastic. After the invention of polyethylene in the 1960s, manufacturers swapped the material of the shipping bags to woven polyethylene because the material was both stronger and lighter in weight. The modern version of the FIBC took off in the 1970s for shipping cement powder, which was used for construction in the booming oil industry.
The modern FIBC is typically used for solids that flow, such as sand and fertilizer. The woven fabric design creates a cube shape once filled with the loose solid, allowing for easy and compact storage. Loops on the top of the bag make lifting and transfer by machines an easy task, and various sizes of bags have one, two, or four-loop options. After the bag has been shipped, a discharge spout on the bottom of the bag allows for easy opening and emptying when the bag is lifted.
FIBCs offer a wide variety of products as well, catering to the type of product which is being shipped. While most products are not conducive to static electricity, some bags are designed with conductivity in mind, implementing static reducing substances into the material of the bags. This prevents static accumulation, which could negatively affect the chemical products being transferred, ultimately resulting in serious shocks or fire.
Materials Used in FIBC Production
FIBCs vary a bit more in design from their Rigid counterparts. An FIBC might look like a bag of reinforced fabric that folds up unless filled. It also might look like a collapsible plastic box that folds flat when not in use. Bag FIBCs can be made of or reinforced with a variety of materials, such as:
- Woven plastic: FIBC bags are typically made of polyethylene or polypropylene. These are long-strand plastic molecules which are more durable than other plastics.
- Fiberboard: This low-density wood composite is an extremely light alternative to standard wood. Fiberboard allows for some flexibility without sacrificing the lightweight nature of the FIBC.
- Wood: Standard wood allows for more structure than fiberboard, but results in a slightly heavier product. A wood FIBC is good for shipping heavier materials without losing the shape of the bag or risking tearing.
- Aluminum: Much like fiberboard and wood, this lightweight metal increases the strength of the bag without compromising the weight, creating a middle-ground option in weight.
- Folding plastic: These containers are designed to pop open for easy use but also fold closed after each use. This ensures that despite the added structure, empty bags can be stacked and shipped with high efficiency.
Uses for an FIBC
An FIBC is typically used to ship solid materials that flow. The FIBC tightly packs materials that would otherwise be messy and prevents mess through an easy release and a discharge spout. Commonly shipped materials include:
- Granulated food products: Certain household ingredients such as salt, sugar, and starch rely heavily on the FIBC industry for shipping purposes.
- Construction materials: Cement manufacturers have been known to use FIBCs for shipping since the 1970s, relying on the containers to minimize wasted space and prevent messes.
- Grains and seeds: Growing locations with no access to ports rely heavily on railway travel to transport and sell goods. FIBCs allow them to optimize this process.
Interestingly, FIBC bags have found uses outside of shipping and have also been used in disaster relief situations such as during the floods in Thailand in 2011. Once filled with sand, the bags formed heavy “bricks,” which were used to build a temporary barrier to protect people and buildings from rising waters.
Advantages of an FIBC
FIBCs can be packed even more tightly than their rigid counterparts, as the flexibility allows bags to be oriented right next to their neighbors, filling small nooks in shipping containers. Additionally, the bags themselves are very lightweight. A fabric bag designed for carrying one ton of material can weigh under 5 kg when empty. Finally, the empty containers can be flattened or stacked, allowing maximum efficiency when shipping the FIBCs themselves.
Why Use an IBC?
Designed for every type of shipping, an IBC promises high-quality manufacturing and storage solutions while keeping costs low to the benefit of producers and consumers alike. Whether you’re looking to ship dry goods, share clean water, or ensure the safety of your chemical products, you’re likely to find an answer packed inside an IBC.
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