Future trends on container handling systems

Historically, maritime transport has had a paramount importance on trade where ports have been the central transfer point between water and land transport modes. Nowadays, more than 80% of world trade is based on waterborne transport and this figure is expected to continue or even grow. Consequently, adequate cargo handling equipment is critical to provide efficient and cost effective solutions for a seamless nodal link in the overall logistic transport chain.

One of the most common means of transporting non-bulk cargo is by containers as they can be moved seamlessly between ships, trucks and trains, simplifying the whole logistic chain. In fact, the percentage of cargo that is containerized has grown during the last decades, achieving 90% of the non-bulk products. Containerized cargo requires a very specialized type of handling equipment and a well-planned terminal configuration to achieve the following:

  • Improved efficiency by ensuring the delivery of the right quantity at the right place and time within the most economical manner
  • Minimum damage of materials during transfer and storage
  • Maximum space utilization by optimizing storage configuration of the cargo
  • Minimum accidents during cargo handling operations
  • Reduced environmental emissions

Hence, the selection of the most appropriate type of container handling equipment for a particular terminal is crucial and that decision has to reflect the future needs of the business. Based on that, ALG has a vast international experience on advising container terminal operators and public port authorities on the equipment requirements under a terminal’s specific configuration and how that would impact the capacity of the facility to accommodate the projected demand. Some examples where ALG has contributed with its team of technical experts were on advising a container terminal operator on the replacement calendar of its cranes; the restructuring process of five container terminals in the Middle East by defining their equipment needs within a reconfiguration of the layout; or the feasibility analysis of Valencia’s North container terminal expansion. Apart from that, the list of Due Diligences where ALG has been involved by providing their technical capabilities is large and covering a wide range of countries like Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Chile or Spain among others.

Container handling operations

A container terminal consists of three main operational subsystems: waterside – from the vessel to the quay apron; stacking yard – where containers are stored; and intermodal – for dispatching containers to the hinterland by land transport modes.

Containers big

The selection of the appropriate type of the handling equipment depends on the size of the terminal, plan layout, traffic distribution between empty and laden containers or the degree of flexibility on the operations.

Challenges facing the global container terminal sector

Container terminals and industries that surround them must begin to modernize from today to respond to the needs of tomorrow. Challenges of tomorrow’s container handling equipment and terminal configuration are summarized below, with some focus on how can them be addressed considering the future trends of the sector

1. Bigger ships require larger ship to shore cranes

In the same battle of racing to construct the world’s tallest building, carriers manufacturing industry is vying to build the largest containerships. Since the 1950’s container ships have tripled in size to reduce the overall transport with the economies of scale. The largest vessel operating today is capable of carrying up to 21,500 TEUs (OOCL Hong Kong) and has a length of 400 meters, breadth of 58.8 meters and a depth of 32.5m. Although this size is difficult to beat, the current ship order book states that Hyundai Merchant Marine has ordered an Ultra Large Container Vessel of 23,000 TEUs expected for delivery in the second quarter of 2020. The growth of the containership dimensions has come to a standstill for several reasons. An increase of the vessel draft is limited by the port infrastructure – depth of the berth pockets and access channels; the vessel’s beam need to be aligned with the width of the Panama Canal locks for those vessels that follows the East-West route; etc.

Indeed, in response to the bigger vessels, ports are making continuous efforts to adapt their berth infrastructure and equipment driven by a fierce competition of accommodating the largest vessels. From the infrastructure perspective, ports will need to adjust fairways, harbor basins and quay walls for deeper water depths and to strengthen berth structures to support larger loads. In terms of handling equipment, ship to shore cranes will need to be heightened and the crane’s boom extended to serve wider vessels. The decision of retrofitting an existing quay crane versus replacing it for a new one is not straightforward and that should consider factors like the age of the current equipment and its obsolescence as well as the crane downtime or how it can affect the berth side operations. As a rule of thumb[1], the cost of heightening a STS crane is around 1.2 million euros and the timeframe can vary from six to ten weeks.

2. Improve quay handling productivity to reduce vessel’s time at berth

As the number of containers carried by container ships raises, the size of the average port call is increasing up to 6,0000 TEUs per call. The pressure to load/unload containers from the vessel as quickly as possible is greater, but there is a limit to how many adjacent cranes can service the vessel. To ensure efficient and safety operations, average spacing between quay gantry cranes handling a ship is around 100 meters. Each of these cranes can work at an average productivity between 20 to 30 moves per hour and that figure depends on a number of factors like the size of the crane, type of vessel being worked, kind of operation (generally it is accepted that discharging containers is quicker than loading into the vessel), skill of the crane operator, double movements inside the vessel, crane’s technical specifications, etc… Productivities around 40 to 70 moves per hour could be achieved by implementing alternative systems on the quay gantry crane such as multiple spreaders or secondary trolleys that allows handling more than one container at the same time.

3. Optimization of the stacking yard

Capacity of the stacking yards cannot grow at the same pace as quay handling productivity since the existing terminal configuration could prevents expansion of the site boundaries. Hence, terminal operators strive to optimize the layout configuration of the container blocks with higher stacking density and to reduce the storage dwell time to enhance the capability of the terminal to capture higher volumes.

Traditional practice is to store containers directly on top of each other, reaching heights up to 5 or 6 boxes depending on the type and dimensions of the dedicated stacking equipment. A new and disruptive technology that could radically improve the storage capacity is a multi-storey container stacking system where each container is placed in an individual rack compartment, which benefits from the fact that each box can be accessed without having to move another one. That system creates 200% more capacity than a conventional container stacking yard and brings big gains in speed, energy efficiency and better safety. That trend on the container sector is reflected on the great interest that some operators like DP World or PSA have recently shown. The implementation of that system would require a complete reconfiguration of the terminal layout and requirements for yard equipment would change.

Source: DP World website

4. Sustainability through electrification of the handling equipment

Activities to protect the climate and environment are on the rise all over the globe and many countries are introducing regulatory mechanisms. The trend towards eco-friendly maritime terminals leads to introduce new technologies and devices on the handling equipment to reduce their environmental impact for issues like noise, dust pollution, vibrations or CO2 footprint.

The energy used by cargo handling equipment contributes to the port’s carbon footprint and have a direct and indirect effects on costs. Hence, many energy related innovations have appeared during the last decade like hybrid technologies, energy regeneration or micro-grids. The most common equipment on container terminals that introduces these technologies are the electrified RTGs, which eliminate exhaust emissions and significantly reduces noise compare with the conventional diesel units.  When a terminal operator decides to replace or retrofit the existing yard cranes for electric ones, the infrastructure of the yard need to be upgraded in order to supply the electricity to the different stacking blocks.

5. Intelligent transport systems

Internal terminal transport systems should be developed to prevent future overburdening in ports, taking into account the growth forecasts whilst at the same time high quality standards are observed. New trends on intelligent transport systems include driverless trucks, remote control quay cranes, Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV), automated vessel mooring system or even an underground container transport system that eliminates crossing of traffic flows.

Today’s challenge in designing and planning the next generation of container terminals and selecting the most appropriate type of handling equipment is to achieve high productivity terminals capable of capturing the growth in traffic and the tomorrow’s business requirements, coping with the health and safety standards and in a sustainable and environmental manner.

[1] KALMAR – A longer life for your port cranes. Authors: Mikko Vuojolainen, Jelle Van der Waal.

About the authors
Pablo Ruiz del Real is MSc in Civil Engineering, Partner at ALG and Head of Middle East operations.
Anna Díaz Llop is MBc in Civil Engineering and Manager at ALG.
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