Breakbulk cargo industry faces challenges to efficiency and profitability

Advocacy efforts and out-of-the-box thinking help this industry thrive.

The breakbulk cargo industry fills a valuable need by transporting equipment needed for farms, manufacturing facilities, and utilities, products that do not fit standard shipping containers. While demand is high for these services, ongoing challenges limit efficiency, delay shipments, and add costs to specialized transportation providers and ultimately their customers. The primary challenges include regulatory requirements, aging infrastructure, and access to freight facilities.

Photo courtesy of Buckingham Transport

Regulatory requirements add days and costs for heavy haulers

A lack of national uniformity in state regulations for permitting oversized and overweight OS/OW products makes it difficult to transport across state lines. For example, two states that border each other could have opposing policies. While one state only allows heavy loads to move at night, its neighbor may require all heavy loads to move during daytime hours. Additionally, disparate tax, environmental, and other policies hinder interstate commerce.

“It takes much more time in permitting and can, at times, add days of delays,” said Mike Brovont, Project Manager for Buckingham Transport. “There are increased costs due to overtime pay for employees, time with equipment sitting idle, inability to move on to the next paying job, and additional costs for arranging police escorts.”

This is not a new problem. In 2013, the Specialized Crane & Rigging Association, SC&RA collaborated with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation (AASHTO) officials to create more harmony among state permitting procedures.

“It has been more than a decade since the states unanimously supported the changes we developed together,” said Chris Smith, Vice President of Transportation, SC&RA. “Only 60 percent of the states have actually made the changes they agreed to make.”

A study by the Specialized Crane & Rigging Association in 2022 estimated that the extra costs resulting from this lack of harmonization were an average increase to customers of 45 - 82% or $4,245 - $5,440.

The good news on the regulatory front is that 42 states are adopting 24/7 automated permitting. This change can potentially reduce the Permit Turnaround from days or hours to minutes, greatly boosting efficiency. It also improves accuracy eliminating the need for manual updates.

However, gaining agreement with all states is difficult, with seven states and the District of Columbia having no plans to adopt an automated 24/7 permitting system. Once again, heavy haulers must navigate multiple permitting processes and maintain detailed information about the intricacies of each state’s regulations.

While permits are challenging for road transportation, port permit requirements are even more complex. The driver must have a current Transportation Worker Identification Credential, known as a TWIC card.

Heavy haulers must also comply with permitted route requirements. The ports, especially the larger ones, are governed by multiple agencies. Both state and municipal departments only allow travel on certain routes. Adding to the time-consuming process of planning a port delivery, a permit is needed for each street the carrier plans to travel.

Photo courtesy of Buckingham Transport

Hours of Service and Heavy Duty Trucks

The heavy-duty trucks are governed by the same policies as less-than-truckload or truckload carriers, although the way the heavy-duty trucks operate is vastly different.

“The 30-minute rest break doesn’t cause much of an issue,” said Brovont. “Hauling an OS/OW load is more tiring with the constant attention that must be in place, so everyone is happy with a 30-minute break once a day.”

The problem comes when an OS/OW load is delayed causing the driver’s hours to expire not at the destination or point of origin. This means that heavy haul truckers must look for parking places, that are in short supply, according to the American Trucking Association. It is even more difficult for heavy haulers to find parking places.

“In our business, we have 19-axle flatbeds carrying 280,000 pounds,” said Craig McGraw, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Trans American Trucking and Warehouses. “Some of our units are a city block long.”

Inadequate infrastructure and access to freight facilities

Numerous leaders, including President Biden, have acknowledged that the nation’s infrastructure is aging and inadequate. The collapse of a major bridge in Baltimore on March 26 of this year shines a light on the infrastructure problem.

“There are many roads that are not large enough or in good condition to accommodate heavy-duty vehicles,” said McGraw. “Low bridges are another problem, particularly in the Northeast.”

Many carriers address this by modifying their trucks' routes, resulting in circuitous routes that can delay shipments from reaching their destinations, add miles, and ironically cause more wear and tear on the nation’s roads. The nation’s outdated infrastructure impacts business. If roads cannot withstand more motorists, how can heavy haulers get products to their destinations without potential issues?

“I recently had a 65-mile route turn into a 98-mile route due to failed loading on bridges,” said Brovont. “Since we were 19 feet tall, it can add quite a bit of time to the move when you count tree-trimming, utility line lifting, and traffic control.”

When a specialized carrier successfully navigates the disparate state regulations for ground transportation, more challenges arise as the carrier attempts to reach a port or railyard.

“Some ports are equipped to accommodate oversized vehicles while others are not,” said Paul Short, President, of North America, Combilift.

Ocean container providers have limited slots and sailing schedules. If a carrier misses an appointment, securing another spot could take days, weeks, or even months. When a specialized carrier cannot access a port through traditional ways, some use barges, or other options to get shipments to their destination, another factor that impacts the efficiency and profitability of specialized carriers.

Thinking Outside the Box

Specialized transportation carriers operate outside the traditional confines of many aspects of routine transportation. Yet, this industry remains strong by creating innovative solutions and “thinking outside the box.”

One area of innovation is the use of warehouse space. Shrinking available warehouse space has increased costs, especially in larger cities like Los Angeles. This dynamic requires companies to optimize their space, which is even more challenging when warehousing oversized products.

Combilift addressed this need by developing lift truck equipment to accommodate narrow aisles. Short states, “Options include articulating truck and wire-guided turret trucks.”

Equally important are the design services offered by Combilift. The company will evaluate the number of pallets or trailer loads that need to be shipped out of a facility per day or shift and the inbound flow. They will use these numbers to devise a narrow aisle layout and recommend the Combilift solution best suited for that company’s needs.

The same company has created equipment to serve the growing wind farm industry, which requires the transportation of turbines and other uniquely shaped parts.

Trailers and Heavy Hauling

To gain efficiency in loading and unloading heavy equipment and other OS/OW freight, the type of trailer used to transport the load makes a difference. For example, Trans American Trucking and Warehousing offers a variety of flatbed trailers.

“Due to the design of a flatbed trailer, workers consume less time and effort to load and unload cargo compared to a dry van,” explained McGraw. “Trans America maintains a diverse inventory of trailers, ranging from tandem axle to extendable, hydraulic-steering lowboys capable of moving oversize freight up to 180,000 pounds.”

The company also offers Conestoga trailers equipped with rolling tarp systems that can be easily opened and closed, saving time compared to traditional tarping methods, according to McGraw.

© Copyright 1999–2024 American Journal of Transportation. All Rights Reserved