Flexitanks for a Competitive Shipping Advantage

By Andrew Bower, Trans Ocean Bulk Logistics Inc.

As part of its 2020 Strategic Plan, the National Renderers Association will continue to focus on the development of international markets. This attention is timely given the new realities taking shape for North American renderers: opening of China markets for tallow and poultry products, a demand shift to vegetable diets in the feed industry, and increased use of rendered fats and oils as feedstock for biodiesel, to name a few. Many United States suppliers who wish to survive in an ever-changing marketplace must prepare to compete abroad.

A presence in foreign markets requires a capable logistics partner and the right modality. For rendered fats and greases, flexitanks are uniquely suited to the demands of international transportation, yet the flexitank is only half of the equation. Working with a vertically integrated flexitank provider reduces risk, miscommunication, and the challenges of managing multiple points of contact. Shippers should exercise due diligence in searching for the right logistics partner. As Red Adair, the famous oil well firefighter, said, “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.” In that spirit, following is a brief background on the flexitank industry and questions to guide shippers in distinguishing between expert and inexperienced, undercapitalized logistics providers.

Role of Flexitanks in International Trade
From the 1980s to the early 2000s, most flexitanks were reusable rubber tanks that had to be repositioned and cleaned between loads, adding to costs and lead times for shippers. This also made them operationally indistinguishable from International Organization for Standardization (ISO) tanks. In 2001, the single-layer, recyclable flexitank was perfected using a linear low density polyethylene, thus transforming the market.

The primary benefit flexitanks offer nonhazardous liquids, including animal fats and recycled oils, is a reduction in unit shipping costs by maximizing product payload. By some estimates, as much as 30 percent more product can be shipped per container using flexitanks as compared to totes, intermediate bulk containers, or drums.

The safety of product and personnel should not be overlooked. After all, what good is a competitive freight rate if product is rejected or personnel are injured? The single-layer, single-use flexitank made from virgin polyethylene is kosher, halal, European Union, and Food and Drug Administration compliant, and eliminates contamination risk from prior products. Unlike ISO tanks, which require repeated washes and sometimes entry by cleaning personnel, flexitanks are a closed system from manufacturer to supplier to receiver. Additionally, there is no risk of moisture resulting from inadequate cleaning practices or condensation due to fluctuations in ambient temperature. Both are common causes for rejection of ISO tanks by loading supervisors.

Personnel should not have to manually manipulate the flexitank to achieve a complete discharge. There is a common misconception that flexitanks must be “rolled like a toothpaste tube” to get all the product out. Shippers are often surprised to discover this is a breach of health and safety protocol. The single-layer flexitank system is designed to be operated externally – no climbing into or on top of the container as with ISO tanks. Translucent material is another benefit of single-layer technology and allows load supervisors to see the product in the flexitank during loading and discharge, something that is not possible with multilayer flexitanks due to an outer layer of polypropylene.

No less important than cost and safety is ease of use. Full-service providers arrange for the container to arrive pre-fit at the loading facility. For rendered fats and greases, a heater pad is positioned under the flexitank to promote efficient discharge at destination. What’s more, most single-layer flexitanks are equipped with the same cam lock valve as ISO tanks. Precursors to the modern day flexitank had a valve on top, but newer designs have reoriented the valve to the bottom of the flexitank. Bottom discharge procedure makes for a better experience for receivers.

Finally, single-layer flexitanks are sustainably designed. They can be recycled for use in consumer packaging, geomembranes, and other large-scale applications.

Protecting Flexitank Shipments Across the Supply Chain
First, shippers should elect to work with globally integrated providers. Most companies that manufacture flexitanks do not participate in the logistics process and vice versa. Moreover, many forwarders who purchase flexitanks do not have appropriate technical support on a global scale.

Second, shippers should know how to shop flexitank providers and distinguish between expert and inexperienced, undercapitalized providers. The following questions should help shippers get past marketing gimmicks and find a strong partner with a global network.

How many wholly-owned factories does the company have? If none, they may have difficulty guaranteeing quality without controlling the means of production. Even joint ventures between logistics providers and flexitank manufacturing companies have proven insufficient to ensure quality. The most expensive flexitank is a cheap flexitank.

How does the logistics provider guarantee flexitanks are not sourced from different manufacturers? Quality standards vary among flexitank manufacturers. Shippers should expect the same quality product whether they are exporting from South Dakota or South Korea. Further, global inventories are difficult to manage so positioning flexitanks to satisfy shipper demand should be handled by a dedicated fleet manager to ensure flexitanks are properly handled and meet uniform quality standards.

How many research and development staff are employed by the company? Scale matters, as does a collaborative design process, which yields a better product and more frequent innovation.

What technical presence and service is offered, and at what cost? Technical support should be included in the door-to-port/door rate and available globally around the clock. Technical personnel should be onsite for load and discharge to train plant personnel and as needed throughout the supply chain.

How many full-time technical personnel are employed by the company? Where are they located? Ask the provider to distinguish between dedicated technical personnel and sales or other staff doubling as technicians.

How many facilities and offices does the company have globally? Can they communicate in the local language of your customer? Ask the provider to distinguish between their own offices and third-party agents to understand the size of their network and the capital investment they have made therein.

What automated key performance indicator reports are sent to customers? Shippers should have the option to receive regular, automated reports detailing transit times, expected departure and arrival dates, container numbers, vessel changes, non-conformities, and so on.

How are non-conformities measured? Anything that causes a delay or disruption in the supply chain should be investigated by qualified personnel (often technical managers), documented, and communicated to the shipper without delay.

What insurance guarantees are offered? Marine cargo transit insurance covers all modes of transport, namely sea, road, rail, or inland waterways. Product and freight should be covered under the policy. Shippers should also confirm whether general average is covered under the standard policy.

What is the deductible in the event of a loss? Some flexitank providers offer a no-deductible policy for a reasonable premium.

Once shippers find a globally integrated logistics partner, opt for door-to-port/door service. The right partner will consolidate tasks and offer support at critical points in the supply chain. This means fewer vendors to manage, less invoicing, reduced likelihood of miscommunication and delays, and a transfer of liability away from their business. Who doesn’t want that?

February 2017 RENDER | back