The space race

01 Oct 2006

SCCT has successfully applied global operations locally at Port Said Egypt.

Is every inch of your shoreside being used to its full potential? Alex Hughes finds out that a little expertise can go a long way in stockyard planning.

Space is the final frontier at so many of the world's ports. With cities eagerly eyeing prime seafront land, port authorities have to be more and more inventive to make use of available space. Getting the most out of every inch of shoreside is vital.

While the Hutchisons and the DP Worlds among us have the experience and the expertise to employ every 'trick' to make the most of their stacks and yard space, the rest of us mere mortals can let another expert take the strain.

Consultant Royal Haskoning sees two type of clients approaching it for advice on optimal yard planning. Those sat in the 'large international terminal operations group' camp already have a company strategy in respect of how a terminal must operate, and make use of consultants to provide advice on implementing this strategy at a local level. Those in the 'smaller terminal' camp, often in the 100,000 teu-400,000 teu range, will often seek external guidance as to how they can better improve operations planning.

Jonathan Tyler, director of Royal Haskoning's Maritime consultancy division, has had experience of both. However, he acknowledges that for the larger groups there is a perceived risk in allowing an outside company access to part of its operation,although this is offset by the range of experience that a consultant can bring to bear on a particular problem.

"We will have seen solutions that have been tried, but don't work and those that have been successfully implemented. We also understand all the issues that arise in this business.We like to think of ourselves as a fresh pair of eyes," says Mr Tyler, adding that external consultants can often ferment discussion as to what the exact problem is within a particular organisation.

As to whether terminals actually need this type of help can depend on the size of their operation. Clearly, global stevedoring groups do contain experts in yard layout and planning,while this is an expensive luxury in a smaller scale operation.Indeed,Mr Tyler questions the economic sense in a smaller operator retaining such inhouse expertise.

"Many successful terminals see little need to change their operations until they encounter a problem or an established working practice suddenly becomes outdated. We like to think that for a medium-size terminal, we can help in implementing either a 'hard' change, which can be in the physical layout of a terminal or in the deployment of equipment, or a 'soft' change, which might consist in zoning the yard or changing gate practices,"says Mr Tyler.

In a typical import-export terminal, splitting export and import boxes is often a key tool in re-engineering handling practices for the better. Because export boxes are usually dispatched on a known vessel, this facilitates better yard planning. Stacks can be higher because fewer shuffles or house moves are needed.

In contrast,import boxes are a much more unknown quantity because they are subject to the vagaries of the client, who is able to choose when to retrieve a certain box. It is therefore more efficient to put these in lower and wider stacks.

"In a block stack system, we would recommend an average of 31⁄2 boxes high on the export side and around 21⁄2 for imports. If a terminal is routinely stacking higher than that there is probably a capacity problem inherent in the system.Some terminals simply don't have an option: they don't have the space!" observes Mr Tyler.

When called in to sort out a stacking problem, consultants look at making the movement of containers between quay, yard and gate as quick, efficient and direct as possible. If there is an obvious weak link in that chain, the idea is to identify a cost effective quick fix. In terminals already operating import/export zones, one possibility is to introduce berth zoning. In terminals with 25%-30% empties, stacking these in separate areas can often relieve pressure on the main stacks.

"During vessel handling in this type of fully-zoned yard, certain areas will become busy, then quiet, then busy again, all of which helps in optimising the deployment of handling equipment. In addition, we also do a lot of simulation modelling to see whether the feed to and from the quay cranes can be improved, which might mean adding further terminal tractors or straddle carriers. We might also suggest buying an empty container handler to relieve pressure on other front-line equipment,"explains Mr Tyler.

While in broad terms these are the most obvious tools deployed, Royal Haskoning stresses that local factors, sometimes wholly outside the control of the terminal operator,might predicate against their use.On other occasions, appropriate changes that terminal management previously hasn't had a chance to think through can be easier to introduce.

Future-proofing of terminals is another area where Royal Haskoning is active. In a start-up operation, Mr Tyler reveals that scalable operations are often key,only adding in equipment when traffic growth so warrants it. "It's a question of balancing initial investment until such time that you have a strong revenue flow,"he says.

Other terminals, faced with congestion, decide to switch over from a reachstacker to an RTG-based yard, but often get stuck half-way. Although reachstackers and terminal tractors can co-exist safely, he warns, they don't usually produce an efficient mix. However, if the decision is to switch from straddle carriers to RTGs, there is no possibility of having the former co-exist with terminal tractors; it is simply too dangerous. The only effective way to do this is to divide one terminal into two entirely separate operations, which in turn depends on available space.

"Sometimes, it means having to close down areas of the stacking yard to undertake the necessary conversion work and that can result in a loss of business. However, some terminals simply have no choice and have to bite the bullet."

Asked whether congested terminals have any other solution left open to them other than stacking higher, Mr Tyler says it can be beneficial to look at historic dwell times for boxes in the yard. Where possible, tariff adjustments can be used to reduce these, since some companies will often use stacking yards as a place to store ex-works goods at minimal expense.However, he warns that if you financially pressurise an established customer too much, they may take their business elsewhere.

Shifting empties off-dock can also have a major impact on freeing up space. "Effective control of the gate is also a key component in having an efficient terminal operation," he stresses. In ports receiving a lot of feeder traffic, many terminals find that Fridays and Mondays can see major gate movements,as consignees seek to gain two days by having boxes rotated out to major hubs during weekends. This puts pressure on the gate, especially since it may see huge peaks of truck movements. By reducing those peaks even slightly can have beneficial knock-on effects,although opportunities to implement such changes are not always that easy to achieve.

Pre-booking of trucks helps the flow of vehicles through the terminal, even though the overall number handled is not reduced.There is every incentive to use this system correctly as hauliers get their vehicles in and out faster.

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