The demand for tank containers is increasing and many in the industry believe the sector’s business prospects for the next two years are sound
There are many reasons for the current optimistic outlook for the tank container market, but, fundamentally, it is because supply chains in the chemical, food processing and gas industries, all of which make extensive use of tank container equipment, are changing.
There is a growing requirement for fully integrated door-to-door services, for shipments to be made in smaller lots, but on a more frequent basis, and for the transport systems and infrastructure used to be highly cost-effective and environmentally sustainable.
Meanwhile, there have been considerable advances in the tank container business itself, as many of the suppliers of equipment, transport service providers and operators of storage/distribution companies have embraced advanced
technologies and launched innovative products and services.
On the design and manufacturing front, the onus is on developing tanks that are:
Composites gain ground
The past two/three years have seen a marked increase in the use of composite materials in the construction of tank containers. Rotterdam-based Tankwell, Admor Composites of Finland, and Omni Tanker, which is based in Australia,
are among those manufacturers to have expanded or announced plans to increase their production.
Admor is building a third factory in Finland, and this will expand its production capacity by about 500 units a year, according to Tomi Kuparinen, a member of the company’s board of directors. Addressing delegates at the Intermodal Europe conference in Rotterdam in November, he said: “The use of composites in container shipping is still young and such a conservative industry as this needs a lot of convincing. There also needs to be changes to regulations governing the carriage of dangerous goods in composite containers at sea, but a working group set up by the IMO and the IMDG is in place, and this will happen.”
Admor is confident that sales of composite tank containers will increase, and that is why the new factory is being developed. But more ambitious plans are in place, with Kuparinen telling delegates that the group had the necessary approvals and was ready to mass produce ISO 20ft dry freight containers from composites.
Elsewhere, Tankwell officially opened its new factory at Wieringerwerf, just north of Amsterdam, about a year ago, and since that time, the company has launched several new designs of tank container. These have included an anti- static unit that is capable of carrying cargoes with flashpoints below 60 degC, and a unit designed to carry hydrochloric acid.
Admor has also designed a special tank that features a high-density polyethylene liner and is tailored to companies trading very corrosive substances, such as hydrochloric acid, ferric chloride, ferrous chloride, polyaluminium chloride, phosphoric acid, sodium hydroxide and sulphuric acid.
Eurotainer on board
In the case of Omni, a close relationship has been forged with France-based tank container lessor Eurotainer SA, which recently took delivery of a new series of 20ft composite-fabricated barrel tank containers from the Australian group.
For Omni, the partnership allows it to get its products onto the global stage, as most of its tank containers and over-theroad tanks are currently sold and operated in the domestic market.
Eurotainer said that it had selected Omni for its latest order because of that group’s expertise in working with composites, its use of superior proprietary composite technology and its willingness to work with us on designs of tank containers that meet the needs of our global client base”.
Eurotainer is keen to phase more composite tank containers into its fleet, which is being expanded both organically and through acquisitions. Earlier this year, through its takeover of Taylor Minster Leasing, the group added over 5,000 units, including tanks specially designed for the carriage of liquefied and cryogenic gases. It currently has a pool numbering about 45,000 units.
Despite growing interest in the use of composite materials, the number of tanks that feature this cladding only account for a very small share of the market, with most manufacturers sticking to stainless steel. This is despite composites being able to carry up to 40% more product, owing to their lighter tare weights, superior insulation and corrosive properties, and being easier to clean.
Despite the advantages, composite tank manufacturers and operators face resistance getting the market to change. One tank container operator demonstrating a composite tank at the Intermodal Europe exhibition explained that
it is vital that all parties in the supply chain are informed and brought on board when a composite tank is to be used. If a composite tank is not expected, he said, they can easily be rejected at the loading dock.
While not ruling out the use of other materials in the future, Jingjiang Asian-Pacific Logistics Equipment (JJAP Tank), which only entered the container tank building sector in May 2018, is committed to using stainless steel.
“We have spent US$3.5B on building the most innovative and efficient manufacturing facility for tank containers in the world,” said John Li, sales director of the company. Speaking to WorldCargo News during Intermodal Europe, he added: “The factory is about 80% automated and features a fourth generation laser cutting machine, a laser tracing system in the welding process, robots and other innovative technologies. This gives us consistently high levels of productivity and ensures our products are of the best quality.”
Li explained that 12 tanks a day were currently being produced under a single working shift, and that in early 2019, this would probably be ramped up to 15 units a day, depending on orders.
“We are able to build standard ISO tanks, as well as a wide range of specials, including those used for moving food products, high cubes, those needing heating and/ or cooling systems, and those used for gases and products such as liquid sulphur,” he said. “We also have a well-funded and staffed research and development department, and we are working with several of our existing customers and potential clients on a number of new ideas.”
Currently, only one production line is in operation, but JJAP intends installing three and raising the factory’s existing capacity from between 5,000 and 6,000 units a year to at least 15,000 units.
Li is confident that the demand for tank containers will rise by between 8% and 10% a year for the foreseeable future. Regionally, the executive sees China as becoming a far more important market for tank containers in both the import and export directions. Meanwhile, from a cargo perspective, he thinks gases and the movement of food-grade products will be the main drivers for the industry.
Niels G. Stolt-Nielsen, CEO of Stolt-Nielsen Ltd, is also optimistic about the market’s prospects. In announcing the company’s third quarter 2018 financial results, he said: “At Stolt Tank Containers (STC), the outlook remains positive as the demand for global tank containers continues to grow. At STC, we will continue to leverage our strengths as the market leader to expand our business.”
In Q3 2018, STC added 1,000 leased units to its fleet. This increased its inventory to over 39,000 units, and consolidated the group’s position as one of the world’s largest operator of tank containers.
Recently, BASF, one of Germany’s leading chemical companies, opened a new tank container storage and fully integrated distribution facility in Ludwigshafen. It is part of the group’s giant chemical complex in the city, and it features two yard cranes with the capacity to lift 75t, and a fleet of AGVs. It has a storage capacity for 2,000 containers.
The use of AGVs will increase productivity levels considerably, as containers will be moved faster to/from the rail terminal and as many as 150 loading/discharge points within the complex. According to BASF, the average journey time is just one hour, and this compares with 22 hours for the conventional rail tank cars used previously.
According to Michael Heinz, a member of the board of executive directors of BASF SE, and director of the Ludwigshafen site, the new terminal provides customers with “enhanced operating flexibility and superior levels of service”.
This is because BASF has worked closely with Belgiumbased tank container manufacturer Van Hool to develop a range of what it refers to as rail-optimised tank containers. The units are much longer than ISO marine containers and have double the loading capacity of most tank containers in general use.
Two sizes of B-TC (BASF-class tank container) were developed by Van Hool for the German chemical giant. These comprise:
The new tank containers are a key element in BASF’s strategy of transferring more of its cargo from road to rail while maintaining both the flexibility and efficiency of using combined transport services and the economies of scale associated with using the high load capacities of conventional rail tanks.
Moreover, given that container rail wagons are up to seven times more productive (in terms of trips) than conventional tank cars, BASF should achieve further efficiencies and cost-savings from this investment.
Although the tank container business will remain niche and specialised, new technologies and materials, along with changing business practices and supply chains look set to see the sector take a larger share of the international trade in liquids and gases.