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Flexible bulk containers provide promising new markets

October 7th, 2009 / By: / Feature, Management, Markets

Manufacturers have struggled in the sluggish economy, and so have suppliers who sell them parts and raw materials. But the bear market has also affected another group: the companies that make and distribute shipping containers—frequently made of fabric. Pallets and drums are still important, but over the last few decades, there’s been a steady increase in the use of flexible intermediate bulk containers (FIBCs) to transport goods ranging from cement to flour, and fertilizer to chicken skins.

The economy has affected the FIBC industry because so many of these containers are used to ship the raw materials used in manufacturing, such as chemicals and alloys, says David Griffith, general manager of the FIBC Group at Intertape Polymer Group (IPG), Bradenton, Fla. “They’re used to transport and store clays that are used in paper, building products and even engine block casting,” he says. “The agriculture side is down as well. Shipping of bulk food products, that’s down, so it’s really taking a toll on FIBC makers.”

The commodity crunch

Nicknamed bulk bags, these large fabric containers usually have forklift straps at the top and discharge chutes at the bottom, with the vast majority identical cube-shaped containers made of welded polypropylene. Now a commodity, they are invariably made offshore, and it’s a race to the bottom, Griffith says. The basic bags have plummeted to a quarter of their 1980s price, and margins are slim.

But many bulk bag makers have turned their attention toward new markets and are manufacturing specialty or custom bags at their customers’ behest. There may be less shipping overall, but these companies are trying to make sure that more shipping is done in fabric containers. “We definitely saw a downturn from January to March [2009],” says Jodi Simons, marketing director for B.A.G. Corp., Dallas, Texas. “But recently, the specialty bags have come back really well—the higher-priced bags that we make in our own facility in Mexico. What has not come back is our commodity business.”

Smarter storage

Recent fluctuations in fuel costs have led manufacturers to try to reduce cargo weight when they ship their goods. To some extent, that’s good for FIBCs, which are lighter than most alternatives. However, some shippers have stopped using FIBCs and have started lining entire semitrailer containers with 6-mil polyethylene, turning them into one giant bag.

Still, bulk bag fabricators aren’t worried. “The more you put in any one package, the more efficient the shipping is,” says Danny Schnaars, vice president of AmeriGlobe FIBC Solutions’ Lafayette, La., facility. “But you have to have special equipment to fill and empty those [container liners]. Our smaller customers can’t really use them.”

Simons agrees. “I haven’t seen a big jump in that type of shipping,” she says. “Ours is just easier to manage. Plus, you would need silos and different types of equipment to move the product within your facility.” Silos defeat the purpose of FIBCs, she points out. When bulk bags are empty, they can be stacked flat, taking up almost no space in the warehouse.

Indeed, FIBC makers are doing all they can to supplant metal containers. AmeriGlobe has introduced freestanding drum bags that can be lifted by the straps like FIBCs, but can be filled using drum-filling equipment. “When you get a truckload of drums, you might get five or six hundred drums on that truckload,” he explains. “You have to receive and store all those empties. But we can fit 400 empty drum bags on a single pallet.”

Meanwhile, IPG is doing its best to make the wooden pallet obsolete. It has introduced a pallet-free bag that can be forklifted from the bottom via a set of rigid polypropylene channels. The all-in-one design saves labor and space, since the bags can be stacked without loading them onto pallets.

Risk reduction

Many bulk materials—even some as seemingly harmless as flour—can explode if sparked. To make warehouses safer, FIBC makers have created special bags that are designed to dissipate static electricity. “A material such as titanium dioxide has got to have a bag that will discharge the static,” Griffith says. “We either put a wire grid in, and then they can attach a ground to it, or there are a couple of different fabrics we can use to do the same thing.”

B.A.G. uses both of these strategies, too. Its Pactainer Ed® FIBC contains threads that route static charges to groundable tabs. Another of its bulk bag types, Crohmiq-Blue™, is made of static dissipative fabric.

Flammability isn’t the only risk when transporting and storing chemicals. Many compounds are caustic, corrosive or reactive, and have to be kept in specially lined bags. The liners can be polypropylene or polyethylene, depending on what’s least reactive with the chemical in question.

“Some of these materials are self-heating solids, where you have to use a barrier liner to make sure no air can get in,” Griffith says. “Once the product’s in there, no air can attack it or it just starts on fire.” It sounds risky, but Griffith says FIBCs can be made very durable and puncture-resistant, and still be valuable for their ease of handling, both for the loader and unloader.

Some bulk bags are lined for a different reason: to provide the cleanest environment possible for the goods inside. That’s the case with B.A.G.’s Pharma Bags, which are small (3–40 cubic feet), lined and baffled bags intended for pharmaceutical ingredients. “The products that go in them are typically really expensive,” says Simons. “They want to make sure they get all the product out. We put a window in the bag so the operator can actually look in to make sure the product has been discharged.”

Schnaars has found that new product ideas often come from visiting their customers and observing how the FIBCs are actually used. During one on-site visit, AmeriGlobe staffers found that seed companies filled some of their bags only part way. They wanted to buy and sell seeds by seed count, not volume, but because the seed sizes were inconsistent, the product didn’t always fit the bags. Unfortunately, incompletely filled bulk bags have a tendency to slump, causing dangerous stacking and transport problems.

“What a lot of companies did to solve this problem was offer four different sizes of bags so that they all would be close to full,” Schnaars says. “That way, they would handle okay. But we have a technology that we apply to the top of the bag that allows the bag to stay stable even though it isn’t filled all the way. So our version of ‘full enough’ is different than the next guy’s version of ‘full enough.’ We can handle the whole range of possible seed counts in two bag sizes instead of four, so our customers don’t have to invest as much in bag inventory.”

Better bags, bigger markets

The margins for commodity-type FIBCs are continuing to shrink. Almost all are manufactured overseas, with price being the number one factor. The key to creating growth under these circumstances, Simons has found, is to introduce the bulk bags into new markets that have not previously used them. “The builder’s bag is a commodity-type bag that’s really popular with builders and contractors in Europe,” she says. “Slowly, over the past five years, they are becoming accepted in the U.S. The advantage is that they can bring gravel or any type of building material to the site and stage it before it’s needed, as opposed to bringing it in with a dump truck, and a lot of times, they’ll reuse the bags.”

The FIBC market has been around for a long time, says Brian Cook, president of BWI Enterprises Ltd., Calgary, Alberta. Anyone can make a commodity bag, but only a few can see new possibilities and imagine new features. “With our company, it’s not just about FIBCs,” he says. “It’s about service, research and development, and design to help the customers out. For us to grow as a company, we need to do it in specialty markets.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based near Athens, Ga.

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