Flexitanks are just one of several types of containers available to transport base oils and lubricants, but their popularity has been growing rapidly, according to an official from Trans Ocean Bulk Logistics. Speaking in March at the Argus European Base Oils Conference, Corporate Account Manager Anthony Haikney said flexitank usage should continue to increase because they offer cost-effective solutions for small or remote blending operations.
Flexitanks are basically giant, sealed plastic bags made to fit inside shipping containers. Essentially, a flexi-tank converts a 20-foot container into a vessel for bulk liquid, Haikney said.
These containers have existed for a few decades, but their use really took off at the turn of the century and are now used in a variety of industries, from mining to pharmaceuticals to paints and inks. Trans Ocean Bulk Logistics, which manufactures flexitanks and offers them as part of its logistics services, does not estimate usage by different industries, but Haikney said lubricants account for a significant portion of total demand.
What I can tell you is that [overall] growth is double digits per year, and [usage by] the base and lube oil sector is definitely growing at those rates and higher, he said.
Haikney, who is based in Southampton, U.K., said flexitanks are well-suited for certain situations, just like alternative containers. Parcel tankers carry the largest volumes and afford the lowest cost per ton, but they must be unloaded at a pier. Intermediate bulk containers are perfect for small volumes, he added, while flexitanks and iso tanks are cost-effective along major trade lanes.
Flexitanks have advantages, he said, due to the fact that they usually are recycled after one use, instead of being reused. This eliminates the need for cleaning, reducing costs compared to other options. Because the shipping company owns the shipping container, there is no return cost, as there often is with iso tanks. Because shipping containers can be transferred to trucks, flexitanks can serve as door-to-door packages that reach remote locations not accessible to parcel tankers.
Some recent trends are making flexitanks even more popular in the lubricant industry, Haikney said. There is a lot of pressure now for companies to reduce the amount of stock that they are holding – both raw materials and finished product, he explained. That means they would rather not receive huge parcel tanker deliveries of base oils. As a bonus, he said, flexitanks can be used for storage, sometimes delaying or eliminating the need to install permanent storage tanks.
Large shipments and lowest cost may be attractive for some lube blenders, but flexitanks show once again that different situations call for different solutions. In this case, it appears that many companies are glad to have transportation options.