The Future of Dry Bulk Handling



Fergal Buttimer, Owner and Director, Buttimer Group, Ireland


The colossal growth of international trade, increasing vessel sizes and demands on port throughput and capacity volumes over the last two decades have been as much features of dry bulk cargo transport as they have in container shipping. Population growth, industrialisation and the shifting economic geography of world trade – notably the emergence of China as a global industrial powerhouse – have meant significant demand for, and development of, modern and efficient dry-bulk terminals to handle food-stuffs, minerals, fuel, biomass and other commodities. Shifting agricultural trade routes, imbalances in supply and demand, as well as an increased awareness around food security, access to emerging markets, and geopolitical risk mitigation have all added to requirements for versatility and adaptability. Moreover, environmental regulation adds complexity for terminals near population centres, where there are concerns around air pollution, dust emissions and health issues. Added to this, broader concerns around climate change, sustainability, regional competition for trade and the changing role of states in many commodity sectors means that the context for development, design and operation of dry bulk terminals is an increasingly complex one.

Weak links in complex systems

Despite increased demand for adaptability and higher capacity throughput, significant improvements in efficiency and utilisation have been widely achieved through innovations in terminal design, equipment design, management and operations. The need for increased throughput has led to 24-hour operation, more effective handling and multi-modal logistics integration. Increasing use of automation and software to manage and monitor terminal operations, schedule planning, equipment, and storage conditions has also played a substantial part in getting the most out of capital expenditure. One consequence, necessarily, has been the increased complexity of process design and operations. Bulk terminals now generally rely on more equipment in more processes, to handle more product. Increased automation, sophisticated technology and higher equipment capacities have not mitigated the risks inherent in increasingly complex mechanical handling systems. To run smoothly, all equipment and processes need to be reliable and perform consistently; a small problem in a complex system rapidly turns into a big problem. In an example from a UK bulk handling facility in 2012, a faulty discharge system on a hopper led to the discharge becoming blocked and the hopper overloading; the rapid throughput of the system meant that the problem was not identified before the hopper’s structure became overloaded and collapsed, also collapsing the support structure of its loading conveyor and surrounding equipment, incapacitating the operation for a number of weeks. Weak links in complex systems have the capacity to cause significant disruption – technological advances, automation and improved management have heightened the need for reliable and robust terminal and equipment design.

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