As shipping volumes have grown, so too has the demand to realise greater economies of scale. Improved design and build quality means the current and future fleet of container ships calling at the world's ports have a vastly greater capacity than those of just a decade ago.
The number of ships with 7500 TEUs or more is growing at an unprecedented rate, with some estimates claiming 49% a year. This means by 2009 more than 250 of such vessels will be ploughing trade routes, compared to just 49 in 2005.
The frenzy for building bigger ships is based on the assumption that the container shipping industry will continue to boom, especially on long-distance routes linking Northeast Asian exporters to the lucrative US, European and Middle Eastern markets. Bigger ships cut costs for shipping companies on long-distance hauls as long as they can fill them with cargo.
This poses great advantages for consumers and shippers in terms of lowering transportation costs, but poses a significant challenge for the ports and container handling sectors. The investment in upgrading container handling equipment is a hefty one, and ports often look to a quarter of a century lifespan to see returns on their outlay. The newest additions to the Maersk Line fleet, the PS Class vessels such as the Emma Maersk, are a massive 56 metres wide and can carry 11,000 full containers.
Whether the trend for bigger ships will continue or not, few of the world's ports are able to manage these new behemoths of the sea. However, any port wishing to bill itself as a hub, or even in the future, a reasonable feeder port, will need to be able to service vessels in the 9000 TEU range to remain competitve.
With unprecedented investment in every corner of the Middle East's marine infrastructure well underway, SFME met with leading industry experts to discuss the ramifications these development are having on the technology at the sharp end of the container handling business.
"In our experience in the Middle East customers coming to us looking for much larger cranes than ever before, it's very rare that we're asked to supply anything below super-post-panamax now," says Gerry Bunyan, sales and marketing manager, Liebherr Container Cranes.
The most important factor ports are forced to consider remains projected capacity, with an accurate impression given by the draft available. The largest container vessels in the current world fleet require a clear port depth of around 16 metres. "Essentially the alongside depth dictates the size of the vessels they can attract, so proposed dredging investment is certainly an important factor and is one of the first questions I ask when I meet with port operators," adds Bunyan.
The market leading ship to shore gantry cranes have adapted to meet the size of the ships that hub ports now service, but the reach is only one facet of how their development has changed in recent years.
The largest cranes working out of the new generation of container ports have to match that working scope with improved efficiencies in moving containers to awaiting trucks for deposit in the port. To do this, more is being asked of the gantries in terms of lifting capability, with the foremost manufacturers now delivering cranes with a safe working load (SWL) in the 80 to 90 tonne bracket.
Certainly one of the biggest changes in crane development in the last five or six years has been that the SWL has risen so that larger quantities of containers can be moved in the shortest possible time," says Bunyan.
Essentially, as the SWL has been raised the number and size of containers that can be moved in each cycle has grown. Initially containers were moved one by one, requiring a full lift-move-position-return cycle per box. With the advent of more sophisticated container spreaders came the ability to shift multiple boxes per lift.
With the latest models of twin-lift spreader, the crane operator can lift a 45' container, a 40' container, a 20' container, or two 20' containers, without changing the spreader. The tandem spreaders available on the market allow even greater lifting capability, with the ability to twin-lift 40' or 45' containers, or simultaneously lift four 20' containers.
"The most significant mechanical development for ship to shore container operations has been the advent of the all-electric spreaders, which are now available in a variety of twin-lift and tandem lift configurations," says Lars Fredin, vice president, sales, at Bromma.
To minimise the amount of time ships spend in port the movement once containers have been picked has also been speeded up, with both the hoisting speed increased and the positioning of containers made more accurate.
Although container handling automation in Middle Eastern ports has not yet been adopted on the same scale as in European hub ports, such as Hamburg, there are steps being taken by regional port authorities and terminal managers to involve more and more technology to maximise the efficiency of container handling operations.
"Generally the ship to shore cranes that we supply to the Middle East are not fully automated. What we have been seeing though is requests for the installation of systems that increase productivity, such as sensor based straddle carrier and truck positioning systems," explains Bunyan.
The positioning systems that have entered the regional market are used to ensure that when containers come off the ship, the receiving truck or straddle carrier is in the right place. Such systems centrally position the trucks so that the crane operator doesn't have any down-time trying to fine tune the container placement, which makes the whole operation quicker.
"In this region most trucks are still manned, so traffic light systems inform the drivers where to correctly position the vehicle, this reduces the complexity of the crane operators task so productivity is improved because the crane can get on with next lift," he adds.
As long as trucking and labour costs remain low in the region, and development space for port expansion remains relatively unconstrained (compared to their European and Asian counterparts) it is unlikely that comprehensive automation systems will be implemented for some time in the Middle East.
Regional customers have definitely been considering the automated handling systems, but we are not aware of any that have started to fully implement, although we might see different levels and concepts of automation in the Middle East in the future" says Niklas Persson, sales director, Konecranes Lift Trucks.
"Being prepared for a young generation of drivers, and the next generation of automation are among the principal considerations for ports worldwide when looking at upgrade solutions," he adds.
That said, the enthusiasm for new and advanced equipment in the region remains extremely strong in the ports sector. Bromma has recently received a major Middle East contract for 29 Marathon yard crane spreaders from OEM ZPMC for delivery to DP World's flagship terminal at Jebel Ali. "These
are the highest-productivity Bromma yard crane spreaders, with twin-lift, single-lift and separating capabilities," explains Fredin.
This is the second major Jebel Ali order for Bromma, following a contract for a further 12 twin-lift spreaders, making a massive total of 41 twin-lift units on order for Jebel Ali. Other major Middle East orders have included contracts for 18 all-electric spreaders to Bandar Abass, Iran and 30 all-electric spreaders to Turkey, split between Yilport and Marport. "Business in the Middle East really is booming for Bromma," adds Fredin.
"The biggest business area for Liebherr container cranes worldwide is currently South Africa, but there's also been very significant demand in the Middle East for rubber tyred gantry cranes, and we're certainly aware of a big appetite in the regional market," explains Bunyan.
On top of a strong order book with Saudi Arabia's Jeddah Islamic Seaport, encompassing 16 RTGs and five big cranes, Liebherr have close ties with Sharjah's port management company, Gulftainer. The Khorfakkan terminal has installed ten Liebherr cranes in recent years, supported by an order for 12 RTGs. Two additional cranes will be delivered to the Sharjah Container Terminal later this year.
The container handling market seems to be adapting to the rigorous challenges being thrown up by the next generation of mega-ships. The biggest challenge for ports region-wide may however prove a financial one.
With the vast majority of the premier product manufacturers based in Europe and Asia, the Middle East's dollar peg is driving the financing for new equipment to the forefront of the development issue. Liquidity in the region is admittedly high, and with it the access to inexpensive capital. However, as with any frontline technology, paying the price for the best equipment remains a question of balancing that investment with return.
Which Middle Eastern ports cope best with the current exchange rates will ultimately decide which ones flourish when 9000 TEU vessel calls become the norm. Untill then, the message from the industry remains: Reach for success.