Flowering in the cold
Helsinki has carved a niche nurturing tech innovation, finds Stevie Knight
It used to be said that Finland lived off its timber – and Nokia. Then the European paper market lost out to Kindle, and Nokia lost out to Samsung and co. Then European sanctions against Russia, although having “a limited effect”, compounded matters, according to Kimmo Mäki, chief executive of the Port of Helsinki.
However, Helsinki didn’t just survive the economic cold snap, it thrived. While the country suffered several years of hardship and total Finnish cargo shrank by more than 7% between 2014 and 2015, Helsinki Port (newly transformed into a limited company), saw its figures rise by 5%.
According to Mr Mäki, the difficult times resulted in consolidation with “customers focusing their traffic on the main routes”. Although the pressure’s off the 50-plus smaller facilities for now, he says “there’s still a question over whether a country this size needs quite such a wide port network”. In fact, Helsinki’s pragmatic approach to the spare capacity has been to buy up 60% of Loviisa, a tiny neighbour 70 kilometres away which is now gaining three, modest agribulk quays: “There was not much competition, and a lot of reasons to collaborate,” explains Mr Mäki.
Despite the success, Helsinki’s not going to buy the rest of the shares: “We want them to have an interest in making it run, standing on their own two feet,” he says.
Helsinki’s done even better out of the recent boom than most. Latest figures show cargo traffic for the first half of 2017 came to 6.5m tonnes, 12% up on the same period last year. The small stream of new cars coming in through the port also grew by nearly 23%, to 37,700 in 2016.
However, the overall growth is about more than GDP: Mr Mäki explains “50% is due to a rise in our market share”. More, while Helsinki’s 2016 box volumes were around 451,000 teu, it should soon see a jump of around 20%, another 100,000 teu.
This expected boom centres on a new paper market: as of this autumn, Metsä Group is bringing in around 1m tonnes a year of long-fibre wood pulp to box up for export to China and the Far East. It’s demanded some fairly broad changes: the agreement resulted in Metsä building a 30,000 metres squared terminal to handle the 11-metre draft ships while the port laid a kilometre of track, rerouted the traffic flow and landed a stuffing and handling area right in the middle of its Vuosaari facilities. In spite of all this, there’s still some spread betting: a certain amount will be loaded as breakbulk “so if the container tariffs go up, they’ll switch over”, says Mr Mäki.
All this involves a prudent assessment of opportunities, but Helsinki’s future contains another, less quantifiable element. As Mr Mäki explains, the port is part of a very high-tech cluster that includes well-known Finnish companies like Wärtsilä, Cargotec and Konecranes, all looking to get one step ahead of the competition.
So despite having volumes only a fraction of places like Rotterdam, Helsinki could be lifted by the wings of nearby R&D. “We probably gain more advanced technology than other ports of our size," admits Mr Mäki. For example, Helsinki was the first port to host a number of the new, ecofriendly Seabins which suck in floating rubbish; it is bunkering LNG; has installed solar power and is developing automated ship check-in procedures. Outside the gates roam some of the first fully electric, autonomous buses.
Further, this spring the port gained six Cavotec Moormaster vacuum installations for its West terminal. These are being used to speed up berthing on the fast-paced Helsinki-Tallinn ro-ro route.
Reading between the lines, this could be a precursor for more sophisticated technology as these fully automated mooring units are necessary for berthing autonomous ships. That, again, is a project close to the heart of Finnish industry, absorbing a significant slice of the intellectual investment left hanging about from Nokia’s decline.
Whether or not the port will eventually be woven into full trials is not yet certain. As Mr Mäki points out, winter conditions are harsh and icy, but it’s still a good bet that the technology suppliers behind these novel projects will be looking for a friendly, commercial spot to test out their wares.
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