Seaborne container trade has increased dramatically since introduction over 50 years ago and, until recently, the global supply chain has worked well in a mature stability with good balance between vessel size and port capability to handle the parcels of cargo they generate. But now we see the struggle with ever larger vessels demanding ever longer berths and ever bigger ship-to-shore cranes, which has introduced inefficiencies that have led some to question the benefits of the mega carriers, which are intended to make the process better. Clearly the shippers have driven the trend for larger ships to make their operations more efficient and the port operators have had to play catch up to keep their place at the table. But with berthside cargo handling rates not improving as much as shippers would have liked, the benefits to the shipping lines have not yet been fully realised and this in itself does not help the terminal operators.
Of course there has been plenty of progressive evolutionary development in moving containers at ports and this now continues with massive improvements in handling and automation for the largest vessels. But so far there has been no positively revolutionary development to ship-to-shore container handling since the start of containerisation in the 1960’s, despite constant urging from the large international shipping lines who, in 2006, introduced the first ultra large container vessel (ULVC) the “Emma Maersk” class, which doubled the carrying maximum capacity to 15,500 TEU (20ft containers). Following the announcement of the 18,000TEU Triple E vessels in 2011, other fleet operators have ordered even larger ULCVs with the largest 2017 delivery “OOCL Hong Kong” 38% bigger with a capacity of 21,413 TEU. To meet their profit targets the shipping lines need reduced time in port, but this is not possible with the larger conventional shoreside cranes that inevitably take longer to load and unload the larger vessels.
The evolutionary development of the container terminal is a line of berths extending in some instances for over 5kms over a narrow coastal strip. Such distances can make operations more difficult and, impressive as the new crane capabilities are, the longer 60m over-ship cantilevers inevitably need faster equipment just to be on par with the speeds attained on the smaller vessels and cranes, never mind the increase in productivity that is sought. Port layouts are still being developed by looking back over the successes of the last 50 years, but the next step cannot be made with normal port layouts and conventional ship-to-shore equipment that have reached full maturity. The basic geometry needs to be re-assessed to create greater efficiency with a view forward to the next 50 years!