Containers: opportunities and challenges



Captain Richard W A Brough OBE, Technical Adviser, ICHCA International Ltd, Romford, UK


50 years of containerisation

Believe it or not, we have been living and working in the world of containerisation for 50 years. Love them or hate them, containers have revolutionised the logistics chain and transformed many of our ports and the vessels that ply their trade between them. The number of containers moving around the globe is truly staggering: at over 27 million TEUs, that is over 17 million boxes and the vessels themselves are steadily growing in size.

The new generation of ‘triple E’ class container vessels being built by Maersk will be truly impressive, each over 400 meters long and with a capacity of 18,000 TEUs. According to Maersk’s own website, if that number of boxes were on a train, the train would have to be 110 kilometers in length.

These enormous vessels are so called ‘triple E’ because of their economy of scale, energy efficiency and environmental impact. They will initially be able to call at very few ports but the industry, as is usually the case, will catch up very quickly. Ports face headache-inducing logistics and handling challenges when presented with such a large volume of containers in one go. However, it also opens up opportunities for ports. The industry is being pushed inexorably down a path of ever increasing efficiency, which drives superfluous waste out of the supply chain process. Major shippers, such as Walmart, are actively seeking greener efficiencies from their supply chain partners.

That ‘waste’ includes idle equipment, inefficient operations, over-manning and unproductive journeys with empty or underutilised containers. There is also an emphasis on reducing emissions, which is the subject of much current debate.

Safety concerns

Whilst it is also true that containerisation has revolutionised cargo handling productivity, safety and security, there are still some serious issues that need to be addressed. Serious injuries to port personnel and vessel crews alike were pretty commonplace in the days of universal break bulk cargo, but containerisation has not eliminated this completely and has presented some new dangers of its own. Whilst this article was being prepared, news came in of a fatality as a container dropped on to a port worker in Peru and two senior staff were injured severely in a US port by heavy container handling equipment. An operative is fighting for his life in Rotterdam after his straddle carrier overturned.

Moving large heavy boxes around means we are using large pieces of handling equipment and they all have inherent challenges. People and machinery do not really mix very well and if there is a conflict then invariably the machinery wins. Containers themselves are very unforgiving and the environment they are handled in creates challenges, working at height being just one. It comes as no surprise then that the industry is beset with continuing serious and fatal injuries to personnel.

This is not to suggest that the industry is complacent, far from it, but the challenges it faces are issues that are not easy to resolve.
Vessel design needs to be examined, with an eye to eliminating the need for personnel to be working at height and juggling heavy and awkward lashing bars. Similarly the utilisation of semiautomatic and fully automatic twistlocks should be looked at, to remove the need for so many staff in the first place. Such issues are at the forefront of the minds of terminal and vessel planners and equipment manufacturers. For example, there are currently two manufacturers offering products that eliminate the need for personnel to be in the dangerous area under the ship to shore crane. The products do this by providing a mechanical solution for automatically collecting and inserting twistlocks.

Other port developers are improving the semi and fully  automated container terminal concept and remote controlled quay cranes are on the horizon. However, there will always be a tremendous lag from the more traditional ports in the world’s developing regions and older technology will still be in use for decades.


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