Ready or not
The path to July’s container weighing deadline is littered with confusion, as Felicity Landon explains
A symbolic clock is ticking on CertiWeight’s website; it’s counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to July 1. That’s the date when SOLAS amendments enter into force, requiring any container departing any port worldwide to have a shipping document giving its verified gross mass (VGM), signed either electronically or in hard copy by the shipper. No VGM? No loading on to the ship.
While this should not exactly be a surprise, the debate has raged ever more fiercely in recent months, with shippers, forwarders, industry groups and even authorities raising the stakes. Higher trucking costs, chaos in the supply chain, no clarity on who is going to do what, concerns that differences in national implementation will skew that all-important level playing field – just a few of the doom and gloom forecasts. There was total confusion when US Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Thomas suggested the impending guidelines ‘are not mandatory’.
While implementation – who, when, how – was the key focus in a recent discussion by members of the International Port Community Systems Association, a rather startling reality emerged.
“At least two of our members, doing some research before their presentations, came across national authorities who actually knew nothing about the new requirements,” says Richard Morton, secretary general of IPCSA. “The SOLAS amendment is a challenge. Our members’ port community systems are adaptable and they are creating solutions for users. But how are shipping lines going to refuse to accept containers for loading when the countries themselves are not aware they have to do it?”
IPCSA members also reported on national administrations just starting to discuss the required legislation and uncertainties about how much inaccuracy would be permitted – SOLAS says 2%-5%, with each country to decide, but varying percentages would do nothing to preserve the level playing field.
Head in the sand
Mark Binge, commercial manager at Ipswich-based GMA Warehousing and Transport, says: “While as a company we are very familiar with the SOLAS requirements, our concern is that many shippers seem to be sticking their heads in the sand and thinking it will go away. I have had comments such as ‘Oh yes, I heard something about that’ and ‘Is it really going to happen?’ I foresee boxes being left sitting on the quay, with shippers facing the costs of delays, repacking and so on.”
GMA will provide weighbridge services and probably a toplift solution as well. Meanwhile, many people are waiting to see what the ports will offer in terms of container weighing services and, crucially, the cost involved, says Mr Binge.
Also, there is the issue of discrepancy. The rules state that any discrepancy between the container VGM provided prior to delivery to the terminal and a VGM obtained by the port facility’s weighing will result in the container not being loaded on the vessel. This is despite the fact that it’s the shipper’s responsibility to provide the VGM.
So what role should, or could, ports play in all of this? Some are promising to provide container weighing solutions; others state that no container will be allowed through the gates without a certified VGM. In the UK, the Port of Felixstowe has confirmed it will offer a container weighing service, with details to follow. DP World is investing in container weighing services at London Gateway and Southampton. And at the Port of Liverpool, Peel Ports has said it will have the ability to weigh all containers as part of an ‘in-process weighing scheme’ which will not impact on productivity.
Fer van de Laar, managing director of the International Association of Ports and Harbors’ Europe office, says: “Our members are well informed about these requirements. However, the whole issue is not really straightforward because there is still some doubt about what will be accepted by the authorities – and we don’t know who the authorities are in every country. Who is going to enforce it? It is all a big vague and phrased in a somewhat ambiguous way.
“If the shipper is responsible [for providing the VGM], then ultimately the buck stops with him. However, if containers start showing up in the port area without being weighed, then I think people further along the supply chain – e.g. the forwarders, who don’t want to take the risk that the container is refused, will say ‘let’s do it’, in order to avoid problems. Otherwise, they will be the ones left holding the baby and paying the cost of the container dwelling on the quay.”
IAPH members have been advised to talk to their tenants, ask them what they are going to do and make clear they are willing to help, says Mr van de Laar. “However, it’s a fine line between being willing to help and taking on a responsibility that actually is not yours. It shouldn’t be construed or stated that we are responsible for this particular requirements under SOLAS – it is the shipper.”
Antwerp-based CertiWeight was set up by Pierre Brees and Frank Van Reybroeck at the end of last year, specifically to offer a ‘smart’ VGM solution with a direct link to shipowners and terminals. Their 90-second solution is simple. A truck is driven on to a weighbridge and the total weight of container and truck is recorded. A reachstacker lifts the container 10-20 cms so that the unladen truck is weighed. The VGM of the container is calculated and passed to CertiWeight’s cloud-based system. The customer pays and the VGM goes to the carrier.
“We will have two ‘flagship’ CertiWeight terminals of our own in Antwerp – one on the left bank, one on the right bank, and we are negotiating with the Port of Rotterdam,” says Mr Brees. “But we will also offer our web application, for relaying the VGM weight, to any other certified weighbridge. There are 50-60 weighbridges in Antwerp with the potential capacity of doing this activity.”
CertiWeight’s partners say interest is increasing every day. They have agreements in place with the major container terminals in Antwerp and are talking with other terminals and container lines. “It is also important for barge and rail traffic that inland terminals are able to weigh and we are working very hard on that,” says Mr Brees. “We are looking at partners in the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy and offering our services in those countries. We seem to be the only ones at the moment offering a real solution, which is extremely strange; the ruling will not be postponed and yes, there could be chaos.”
The company will also certify factories so they can link into the solution, providing packed container VGMs direct, says Frank Van Reybroeck. “And having a lot of weighbridges in the port all connected to our central database means we can spread the facilities, so there will not be congestion. The terminal operators will not weigh containers inside their facilities because of lack of space and they don’t want to jeopardise operations.”
WEIGHT NOT THE ONLY SAFETY VARIABLE
A container weighing solution launched by LCM Systems goes further than simple gross weight – it also detects load distribution, which, as managing director Steve Sargeant says, is a major safety issue too. There is no shortage of examples of container trucks tipping over on a very slight bend in the road because of poor, uneven loading inside the box.
The LCM system is made up of four load measuring pins that replace existing load bearing pins on the spreader block, together with an interface module and ruggedised eight-inch tablet.
“One of the reasons we provide weight distribution is that the ports have said they have an issue with damaged twistlocks,” says Mr Sargeant. “By measuring four different points, we can work out what the load’s distribution is on each corner. Ports can interface this with their TOS and will know if they have a regular supplier of unevenly loaded containers. They can also look at maintenance because they will be monitoring whether a twistlock is regularly overloaded.
“A container unevenly loaded is a safety issue when it comes off the ship. The vehicle itself may not be overloaded but you can overload an axle.”
Mr Sargeant says the system has been designed to be as universal and flexible as possible, and also to be easily installed by untrained personnel, with no wiring required. When the container is actually weighed at a port varies, he says. “Some of the smaller ports are looking at doing it on the shiploading cranes but that means it is about to go on the ship and if it is misdeclared or overloaded, it is going to slow up loading and mess up the shiploading plans.
“Most ports do it on the straddle carrier, and are trying to go back to the reachstackers when they stack the container in the first place – doing it early, before shipload planning.”
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