Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBCs) are used throughout the manufacturing and logistics world to transport large quantities of material in an efficient manner. These IBC totes were first used in 1992 as an alternative to the 200-liter (55-gallon) drums that were the primary bulk storage solution at the time. Since then, these containers quickly evolved to become the primary means of transportation and delivery for companies worldwide.
In this post, we’ll take an in-depth look into the design, maintenance, and transportation of intermediate bulk containers. As you’ll see, this guide will cover general information that is applicable to all IBC designs. Many IBC configurations are customized to meet the specific needs of different companies and use cases, and there are thousands of variations available in the market. You’ll also find some helpful guidelines and tips for storing and tracking these containers to ensure that reusable IBC totes are properly returned.
In this guide, we’ll discuss:
- The Definition of an IBC Tote
- IBC Tote Container Types
- Fittings and Attachments for IBC Totes
- Common Applications for IBC Totes
- Storing and Shipping IBC Totes
- Tracking and Identification of IBC Totes
- Additional Reading About IBC Totes
The Definition of an IBC Tote
The International Organization for Standards (ISO) defines an intermediate bulk container as primary packaging that meets the following criteria:
- Has a capacity of 3 cubic meters (3000 liters) or less
- Can be handled mechanically with or without integral or detachable devices
- Contains liquid, pastes, or solids
- Is resistant to the stresses common during handling and transport
These regulatory guidelines do not define a lower limit for size, but the ISO does note that IBCs smaller than 0.25 cubic meters (250 liters) are rare and may require specific tests to determine suitability. An IBC can be used as a returnable vessel and refilled multiple times or designed as a single-use container to be disposed of after transport of the enclosed material is completed. An IBC may also contain a liner that acts as a protective layer between the transported material and the outer wall of the IBC.
It should also be noted that these definitions pertain to IBCs that are used to transport non-hazardous materials. There are additional regulations for hazardous materials that are subject to additional scrutiny regarding the integrity and safety of the IBC totes. A good summary of these considerations can be found in 49 CFR 173.35 – Hazardous Materials in IBCs.
IBC Tote Container Types
There are thousands of individual IBC designs, and we’ll break these down by reviewing the common types, sizes, and configurations that are common in the logistics industry. These descriptions of the various types of IBCs and other characteristics will help you understand what’s available in the market and how IBCs are used in different situations.
There are six major IBC container styles that are used to transport materials. These design types are often selected for each application based upon the specifications of the material to be transported and environmental factors.
- Metal IBC – This style has a body that is constructed of metal (often aluminum or steel) and is collapsible when empty, making it easy to return.
- Flexible IBC – Constructed of woven materials (paper, plastic, or fabric), this design is also collapsible when empty and operates much like a metal IBC with a less rigid form factor.
- Fiberboard IBC – Constructed of fiberboard, this design has a rigid construction and maintains its shape while filled or empty.
- Rigid Plastic IBC – Constructed from a variety of plastics, these containers cannot be collapsed and maintain their form factor at all times.
- Composite IBC – A composite design uses a single outer structure that can be rigid, semi-rigid, or flexible.
- Wooden IBC – Many types of wood can be used to create this container type, which is also rigid at all times.
IBC Tote Size & Dimensions
IBC sizes range from 110 to 550 gallons with base dimensions that are roughly standardized to 45 inches long by 45 inches wide. This base size is set to align with the standard size of pallets, allowing these containers to be easily transported together with other logistics shipments. The height will vary with each container based on the specific IBC volume of construction. The most common sizes are 275 gallons and 330 gallons due to their even division into 55-gallon drums, which is the next standard size down for bulk material storage. Each IBC is also designed for forklift or pallet jack access with 2-way, 3-way, or 4-way mobility access.
How to Choose an IBC Configuration
As mentioned above, selecting an appropriate IBC often begins with a review of the safety and handling requirements for the material to be transported. In some cases, this means multiple IBC types could be suitable for a particular application. These are a few common considerations that manufacturers, distributors, and logistics partners use to finalize an IBC shipping plan, including:
- Shipping distance
- Shipping method (air, sea, land)
- Environmental conditions (temperature, rain, etc.)
- Packing and storage requirements
- Quantity and logistics needs (stacking, etc.)
- Container fleet requirements (returnable vs. one-time use)
Once an IBC configuration is chosen, it can often be used for several years as part of a routine supply chain loop. This is one of the main benefits of IBC containers versus smaller vessels as they allow a relatively large amount of material to be transported with fewer containers to manage.
Fittings and Attachments for IBC Totes
The attachment of an IBC tote to other equipment for the purpose of filling or emptying the vessel is an important part of the transportation loop. Each IBC will come with a tap at the base of the container where the material can be transferred. Materials handlers can choose from several different fittings such as male cam, female cam, hosetails, NPT threads, and BSP threads. Before working with an IBC tote, it is helpful to review the design schematics to determine which fittings and adapters should be used for your particular applications.
Common Applications for IBC Totes
You will find IBCs used in nearly all industries where large amounts of materials are transported. An IBC offers a convenient, safe, and reliable way to move quantities of material between manufacturing, warehouse, and end-user locations. Given the unique nature of each sector, you will often find several IBC configurations in service at any location. Some of the most active industries that use IBCs are:
- Chemical manufacturing
- Semiconductor fabrication
- Power generation
- Industrial processing (fuels, lubricants, hydraulics)
- Water treatment
- Food and beverage
- Pharmaceuticals and biotechnology
The shipment of bulk materials using an IBC offers these organizations several benefits and economies of scale. By using fewer shipments at larger volumes, a company can achieve optimal quality control, operational costs, and transportation efficiency.
Care and Cleaning for IBC Totes
For several applications, such as the use of food ingredients, an IBC will be used as a returnable vessel and reused for multiple shipments. As reusable vessels, they must be cleaned after each use to ensure that the container is free of any contamination that could affect the quality of the next filling. There are two common methods of cleaning: clean-in-place (CIP) and clean-out-of-place (COP). This simply refers to whether the container is moved to another location to be cleaned or will have mobile equipment attached to complete the process.
In this handy guide, CSI Designs identifies several best practices for cleaning and maintaining the quality of IBC totes, including:
- Follow regulatory inspection guidelines
- Avoid overfilling
- Move and lift totes with caution
- Use professional cleaning services where appropriate
- Remove packaging and lids slowly
With proper care and regular inspections, IBC totes can be used continuously for several years. This helps reduce transportation and handling costs by extending the useful life of these vessels.
Storing and Shipping IBC Totes
As mentioned above, most IBCs are designed to fit in the space occupied by a standard pallet and shipment. Working with these large containers requires a heightened sense of awareness and focus on safety. It’s important to always check that all hoses and attachments are disconnected from an IBC before movement and that the forks of a pallet jack or forklift are properly aligned underneath the vessel.
Storing IBCs can be done safely by following recommended best practices. Always consult the documentation and storage recommendations for any IBCs you use. The following guidelines can be used to offer some general insights into the IBC shipment and storage processes.
- Verify U.N. Markings. The UN/DOT marking present on each IBC will define the maximum weight for that vessel and the allowable weight upon stacking. This is the best initial data to inform any decisions related to storage or shipment based on available load tests.
- Nesting and Stack Height. IBC totes can be stored in different nesting configurations, such as two on two, and should only be placed in a layout recommended by the manufacturer. Most IBCs have been designed for stacking at least two containers high and in some cases may be allowable up to four containers high. The greater quantities are often acceptable when the vessels are empty and collapsed or have been specially designed for this purpose. You will also notice different stacking quantity guidelines for transportation and storage.
- Securing Containers. Because these containers often contain liquids and other materials that could leak out from the vessel, it is extremely important to secure them properly. Secondary containment areas are often designed into warehouse locations where materials will be stored to capture runoff in the case of a leak. Special precautions should be taken to secure the vessels in place during storage or transport to avoid movement and the potential for damage.
- Available Space. The amount of available space in warehouse areas or transportation vessels may limit the quantity of IBC containers that can be stacked. For example, a standard semi-trailer can often accommodate several rows of IBC containers stacked two wide and two high. Any party that plans to ship IBC containers can calculate the amount of potential space based on the container volumes and recommendations from the IBC manufacturer and logistics partners.
These are just a few of the many topics that must be considered when choosing an IBC shipment and storage plan. During any evaluation, safety should be the main priority, and regulations, best practices, safety data sheets (SDS), and manufacturer’s guidelines should all be consulted.
Tracking and Identification of IBC Totes
One of the biggest challenges in maintaining a fleet of IBC containers is tracking the location of each vessel. Many material suppliers will rent returnable IBCs to their customers to help improve the chances of them being returned. In many cases, the supplier must follow up with the customers on a regular basis to ensure that empty vessels are being returned in a timely manner. If returnable IBCs are lost in the process, it requires the manufacturer to invest in additional totes which can be costly over time.
A best practice across industries involves the use of durable asset tags that include a unique barcode. Metalphoto® anodized aluminum is recognized by the National Association of Graphic and Product Identification Manufacturers (GPI) Industry Standards and Practices Manual as the most durable printed aluminum substrate available, making it an ideal choice for IBC labels to ensure readability throughout the useful lifespan of the vessel.
When connected to a centralized asset management platform, these IBC barcodes can be scanned prior to shipment and tracked in the system. This gives the IBC owner complete visibility into the number of containers present in warehouse locations, manufacturing sites, and customer facilities. These returnable tote barcode systems offer companies several benefits including:
- Reduced cycle times
- Streamlined regulatory compliance
- Proof of delivery
- Improved IBC maintenance checks
An IBC is a valuable and often relatively expensive piece of equipment given its large size and durability. Properly tracking these IBC assets should be a priority and one of many ways that manufacturers and transportation partners can reduce logistics costs.
Additional Reading About IBC Totes
- Composite IBC Compliance Manual 2020 (RIPA)
- Popular IBC Tote Dimensions (ASC)
- Intermediate Bulk Containers General Fact Sheet (NFPA)
- The Complete Guide to Hazard Communication Standards (MPC)
- Four Things to Keep in Mind When Transporting Liquids in an IBC Tote (Container Exchange)
- A Guide to Renting IBC Totes (Business Case Studies)
- Guidelines for the Reuse of Intermediate Bulk Containers (RIBCA)
- IBC totes revisited- A guide to retesting of IBC totes (ISO Tank Container)
- UN/DOT IBC Closure Requirements (Precision IBC)
- Intermediate Bulk Containers Handling Guide for Safety, Efficiency (CHEManager)