Physics & Weight Distribution

Improper cargo balance can cause a ship to list or capsize.
Improper cargo balance can cause a ship to list or capsize. (Image: Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Weight distribution and its related impact on the physics of material handling has a significant impact on the day-to-day operations of businesses requiring shipping services. Proper load weight distribution, be it in a cargo truck, ship or aircraft, allows a vehicle to operate at peak efficiency. By contrast, unevenly distributed cargo weight can have negative consequences ranging from greater fuel consumption and higher maintenance expenses to, in the most severe cases, catastrophic vehicle failure. Given the money earned and saved by a quick study of the topic, most companies can benefit from training staff in the basic physics surrounding weight distribution.

Weight Distribution Physics and Business

To the average office manager, the physics of a balanced cargo load may seem insignificant. However, the amount a company invests in material handler training can have definite financial consequences. Setting aside a little extra time to train warehouse staff in proper load balancing and the finer points of efficiency cargo loading streamlines the expenses of the shipping and receiving department. Business partners may even appreciate the extra effort made on their behalf to accommodate their specific shipping needs. According to Dave Piasecki of Inventory Operations Consulting LLC, a business shipping to a destination that only has access to pallet jacks should never turn the pallets sideways. The reason for this is that such a load requires a forklift to unload efficiently and would inconvenience a customer without one. Piasecki goes on to suggest that businesses know the load weight capacity of the shipment destination, since a 5,000-pound load would present a problem to a facility equipped to handle a maximum load of 4,000 pounds.

Physics of Aeronautical Weight Distribution

According to the airline Lufthansa, improper aircraft cargo weight distribution increases fuel consumption over the course of an entire trip. Lufthansa estimates that switching from aluminum shipping containers to plastic will result in a fuel savings of 27,500 metric tons – or 27,066 imperial tons – of kerosene fuel over a 10-year period. According to Lufthansa, not only does the statistic suggest a slimmed-down fuel budget, but it also accounts for an estimated 100,000 metric tons – 98,420 imperial tons – of prevented carbon dioxide emissions, reducing the airline's ecological footprint significantly. The physics behind the change in fuel economy is simple: With an imbalanced load, one of the plane's engines needs to work harder to compensate for the added strain and to stabilize the aircraft.

Weight Distribution and Container Ships

On a container ship cargo vessel, weight distribution is a critical consideration, not only for fuel economy but also for the sake of safety. According to JCtrans Technology Co., improper weight distribution can cause severe structural damage as a result of overstraining the ship's bulkheads. A ship at sea, even a large one, is subject to the roll and pitch of the ocean's waves. Improperly balanced or improperly secured cargo can shift. Shifting cargo is a crushing hazard to the ship's crew and can cause structural damage in and of itself because of the resulting impacts. In severe cases, an improperly balanced and secured load on a cargo ship can cause the ship to list or capsize. The reason a ship with an imbalanced load will capsize, when viewed in a physics context, is that without a load the upward pushing force of the ship is equal; but when too much weight accumulates on one side, the center of gravity shifts and creates a rolling force, which can capsize a ship.

Trucking and Weight Distribution Concerns

According to BMW, an improper weight distribution in a vehicle can cause chassis vibrations. When driving a cargo truck on the highway, these chassis vibrations can result in unpredictable vehicle handling, which presents a major safety hazard. Consistent vibrations that the vehicle's designers did not anticipate can hasten the deterioration of the vehicle, particularly at complex joints and critical frame welds. Ultimately, damage due to vehicle vibration increases the amount of money a company needs to spend on repairs, making preventive training a worthwhile investment for loading crews. From a physics standpoint, the vibrations caused by improper load balancing result from a deviated center of gravity. When the center of gravity is off in a truck, small bumps in the road create an exaggerated momentum within the vehicle's frame, causing unwanted vibration and wear.

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