ISO Tank Containers – The Magic of Modular Design

Tankformator (S) Pt Ltd., operating out of Singapore, is clearly a proponent of modular bulk equipment and more. More? Well when I say more , I refer to that intangible stuff called ‘passion.’ Passion is what we have at Tankformator for modular bulk equipment, read Iso tank containers, and this we believe shines through when dealing with us.

Tankformator continues to articulate what it sees as tangible benefits associated with modular equipment and Tankformator aims to introduce modular bulk transport concepts into new markets such as Energy and Environmental services and other.  This note is primarily aimed at those on the fringes of the Iso tank container industry operating in markets where Iso tank containers could perhaps start to make a difference now or in the future?

At Tankformator, we believe that there is great merit to modular bulk transport equipment! What is modular Bulk Transport equipment and how is it different? With Modular Bulk transport equipment we generally refer to Iso tank containers, a bulk transport concept, over 50 years old that has become a global norm for transport of intermediate bulk parcels. There are close to 400,000 iso tank containers World-wide according a 2013 ITCO census.

The capacity of iso tank containers ranges from 14000Ltr (3699US Gallons) for high density, high hazard bulk liquids to 26000Ltr (6869US Gallons) for low density bulk liquids.

Iso tank containers built to transport hazardous cargo have to meet a variety of regulations including but not limited to IMDG, ADR-RID- US DOT and other. There are a variety of UN Portable tank types, the most common of which is T11 as it is permitted to transport a thousand or more hazardous bulk chemicals.

Iso tank containers are of a mature technology, high quality and in service reliability. Iso tank containers often referred to as the moving pipeline enable shippers to move their liquid assets from terminal to terminal and tank to tank without the need for trans-loading and with that, shippers are assured that their product specification is not compromised.

The assurance of product integrity is not a chance occurrence, rather the engineered outcome of mature technology, good design and specification. Typically tank containers have a stainless steel tank shell with 2B finish. The stainless steel shell and mill finish warrants the maintenance of high cleanliness standards. Tank containers’ capacity to contain both liquids and vapors securely enables shippers to purge tank containers before loading with nitrogen to avoid humidity and oxygenation of the cargo and maintain this inert atmosphere throughout.

Iso tank containers belong to the global container shipping architecture. ISO refers to International Standards Organization.  Iso tank containers built to ISO1496-3, are of the same length, height and width and form modular elements that like regular shipping containers can interface with other iso (shipping) containers, container vessels and rolling transport equipment of the same size.

When looking at an ’exploded view’ of the manufacture of modular Iso tank containers, this can be condensed into a series of simplified and mostly standardized manufacture processes that in a line manufacture environment (think conveyor belt) which involves less than a dozen processes transform a range of materials into a high quality, state of art, tried and rigorously tested, highly versatile end product. These materials range from stainless steel shell plates that are welded and rolled to diameter, while other shell materials such as the dished heads are mostly supplied preformed. These together with hollow sections, I beams that will make up the Iso frame, plus the valves, fittings and peripheral materials such as insulation and cladding make up most of the materials that are fed into the manufacture line operation. Moving from one line process to the next, right at the end of the production loop an Iso tank container will emerge ready to be put to work.  Tank container manufacture is centered in China and S.Africa and W Europe.

Tank container manufacturers, have certified manufacture facilities, manufacture processes and qualified skilled workers. Designs are certified by 3rd party class societies such as Bureau Veritas and Lloyds, and manufacturers have a portfolio of prototypes that were subjected to a series of rigorous tests in one of a handful of approved test facilities located in Europe and S Africa.    

Iso tank containers are of lean and trim design, and lack the bells and whistles one is more likely to find on road tankers. Modular design is uniform, and when you operate a fleet of tank containers large portions are built according the same specification and such containers will for all intents and purposes be identical. That by itself is a big positive for efficiencies in operation.

Their modular design enables the seamless transportation via common modes of transport such as Road, Rail and Sea (Lo-Lo -load on-Load off). Lo-Lo vessels are cellular container vessels. Besides cellular container vessels there is also Ro-Ro (roll on –roll off).

The alternate movement via more than one mode of transport is generally referred to as multi-modal transport. In common with all other shipping containers, Iso tank containers’ design and specification include corner castings meant to securely interlock with the twist locks of container trucks, rail wagons and all common container lift trucks. For the purpose of transportation, modular tank containers interface with the needed transportation equipment such as prime movers (tractors) and trailers, rail wagons and container vessels.

Besides modular bulk transport equipment there is also non modular bulk transport equipment such as road tankers. These are mostly semi-trailers of a design configuration whereby the tank is designed and built jointly with and integrated into the undercarriage. The integration between tank and trailer has a variety of implications in operation. Semi-trailers finally match up with a prime mover to become one complete transportation unit.

One of the implications in the use of road tankers is that Operators require sizeable terminals to accommodate their fleets and to carry out cleaning and maintenance, whereas owners of even the largest fleets of iso tank containers (read up to several tens of thousands) need none of the above as iso tank containers are stored in privately owned tank container depots where they can be cleaned, repaired and where they undergo statutory tests as and when required.

Operators of Iso tank containers are also able to outsource non-core services such as road haulage. They can draw on available road haulage capacity available in most markets, and potentially enjoy competitive pricing.

The other big differentiator between Iso tank containers and road tankers is their capital cost. Iso tank containers are much less capital intensive and much less costly to maintain as compared to Road tankers.  Well who does not want to pay less to do more?

In the case of road tankers both the size of terminals and the high capital cost stand in the way of an ability to quickly ramp up capacity when there is an upsurge in market demand. This in contrast to the ease available to tank container Operators to ramp up capacity!

Whereas there is no doubt that there is a place in the market for both and many arguments on both sides of the aisle including some that were left untouched here, when it comes to building scale, capacity and flexibility, multi-modal and intermodal bulk transport equipment has over the years outpaced non modular bulk transport equipment and many transporters that started out as road tanker Operator later embraced Iso tank containers and some have even become market leaders.

Jaap Huigen