Felicity Landon finds out why these flexible friends have so much to offer to small and medium-sized ports.
To handle this business, the port is investing £10m in a development that includes an extension of Riverside Quay, a significant dredging project and, critically, the purchase of another new mobile harbour crane (MHC).
When the Liebherr LHM 320 arrives in May, it will be the port's fourth MHC - and the port only took delivery of its third Liebherr in September. These cranes are, says Wilson, offering the real flexibility that a medium-sized port like Tyne needs.
He expects coal imports to be up to 1.4m tonnes this year and 2m tonnes next year. But the equipment used to handle this business must be ready to handle a whole range of other cargoes in between times.
"We export ferrous scrap and import steel slab, pulp, forest products and coal, and these cranes give us a significant and very comprehensive handling capacity, " he says. "The size of the crane will allow us great flexibility on the conventional cargo handling but also gives us back-up for handling containers. Although we are handling containers with a gantry crane, it is good to have that back-up."
Wilson says MHCs are "the next generation of dockside cranes but more mobile".
"With regard to handling bulk products, traditionally it was 15tonne dockside cranes running on rails. They did a sterling job and we still have them, " he says. "The way we operate the MHCs, they pretty much do the same thing."
Productivity is key, he adds: "We had a coal ship in and three big Liebherrs on her with 23.5 cu metre grabs each. That decimates a 30-40,000 tonne shipment.
"But people expect that productivity. Ships are getting more expensive to charter. Everything is in a hurry, everyone wants their ship discharged on arrival and turned round as quickly as possible to minimise costs to them. All our customers anticipate now that level of productivity that we can achieve with our big cranes."
What are the drawbacks? Wilson says that there are limitations with regard to mobility. "They are not the sort of thing we drive around the dock estate but within the realms of our quay space we can take them back from the front to the back of the quay if we want to work on other cargoes, so they are very flexible."
MHCs take a lot of looking after, he says. "They need a fair amount of expertise. They are complicated machines with their hydraulics and electric motors and ropes. We don't get a lot of trouble with them but when you do get problems, you have to have someone who knows them. We send our staff away to be trained, particularly at Liebherr."
Weight is also a consideration. "These are heavy machines and we work them on suspended quays - so we had to do a lot of investigation into the strength of our quays, " says Wilson.
To cater for this, the port is running Liebherrs with multiple axles to reduce wheel load on the suspended slabs, and the cranes are equipped with larger than normal support pads.
"The dynamic forces that come down into the quay through the crane are quite substantial, so we had to do a lot of work on that, " he says. "Some of the manufacturers provide better solutions if you have weak quays. Modern quays are all geared to 10 tonnes per sq metre, which shouldn't present a problem for any crane.
"But if you have old quays designed for 5 tonnes per square metre, then you have to be very careful. Nothing is going to collapse immediately but you do put extra stresses and strains on the quay."
The advantages of using MHCs are clear, he concludes: "Lifts of 15 tonnes to 30 or 40 tonnes are just the normal, and we can lift project cargo up to 100 tonnes. We can change from hook to grab. One minute we can be pulling out steel slabs, the next minute we can fit the cactus grabs on to load scrap - and we have different grabs for different grades of scrap. Then the coal might come in and we change to a coal grab. The next thing we might need to load or unload containers, so we put the spreader on. It is total flexibility."
The Port of Blyth now has five MHCs, after taking delivery of a Sennebogen last year and a Liebherr this year, both for its deepwater Battleship Wharf facility, where bulks are increasing fast.
"Flexibility is what we are after, " says Martin Lawlor, the port's commercial and operations director. "We even use a Liebherr for container handling and are achieving good turnround times for the size of ships we handle. A gantry is very much a specialised piece of kit but we can use the MHC for other purposes."
Not only can the MHC be moved to work on another berth, but it can also be moved back from the quay for other work, he adds. "For example, we can use the crane for project lifts, then move it back from the berth in order to do the lift onto a vehicle."
TO CONTROL THE ECONOMICS can also be moved back from the quay for other work, he adds. "For example, we can use the crane for project lifts, then move it back from the berth in order to do the lift onto a vehicle."
Frans Jol, managing director of Salerno Container Terminal, is a longtime fan of the MHC. Salerno currently has five Gottwalds - three 300s, one 280 and one 260.
"I believe that mobile cranes should be used by all ports which need to be flexible, handle a mixture of small and larger vessels up to 3,500TEU, and need to control the economics of the terminal, " he says.
"You can put more cranes on smaller vessels because they can work alongside each other. You can move them easily to other parts of the port. Operational results are many times better than quay cranes; it's not the crane but the yard which makes the productivity, but you can help this with good spreaders like Smits' spreaders specially designed for mobile cranes, which are perfect."
Another undoubted benefit is that the price of an MHC is 40 to 45% cheaper than a quay crane, says Jol.
Falmouth Docks has recently taken delivery of a new Liebherr LHM 150, which was bought to handle a variety of trades.
For most of the time it will be working in shiprepair, says Mike Reynolds, A&P's port operations director at Falmouth. "Then it will be working in cargo, doing hook lifting and grab work for bulks and also container work, " he says. "It has to be entirely flexible and completely moveable around the whole port; the mobile crane today is becoming so good that I don't see us going for a fixed one again."
Gottwald reported a big increase in demand for MHCs last year.
Alongside mobility and flexibility, one of the reasons for the MHC's increasing popularity has been the gradual move from state-owned ports to privatised operations, says Peter Klein of Gottwald's marketing department.
"When ports were privatised or gave concessions to private terminals and operators, there was a need for a new flexibility or more flexible equipment with higher lifting capacities, and the MHC fits that gap, " he says. "The investment cost isn't as high as with purpose-built equipment, the MHC is flexible and cost-efficient, and it can be moved from terminal to terminal - and, of course, re-sold easily if no longer needed."
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