Ports Cranes Ease Crisis

24 May 2022


The world’s supply chain is buckling under pandemic and war. Julian Champkin looks at how the ports of the world are trying to ease the strains.

It isn’t actually all about the cranes. It’s not all about the shipping. It’s not all about the pandemic. It was, for a while, about the Ever Given, the 200,000-tonne container ship that got itself stuck in the Suez canal thereby blocking the channel for 12 % of the worlds trade for six days directly, with knock-on effects lasting even longer. That and the pandemic shut-down of China’s ports meant that throughout the winter of 2021/2022 hundreds of huge container ships lay anchored off the US west coast, unable to get a berth at its giant ports to unload. There was a massive shortage of containers, with empty ones stacked high in all the wrong places. But that is mostly behind us now. In Britain it is not even all about Brexit. All of these have contributed, and are still contributing, but the end result is clear: the world’s supply chain has been stretched to the limit, and in some cases beyond it.

Even 12 months ago the idea of not being able to source from another country a component, or a product, or a commodity, straightaway and for it not to be able to get to you more or less as fast as ships or planes or trains can travel, was a fantasy. Now it is reality, and an everyday reality at that, and we tend to be surprised if something we need from abroad is actually available and deliverable inside some reasonable timeframe. That’s how bad it was in February; and then Russia invaded Ukraine.

More than a million containers that used to travel to Europe from China by train, through Russia, now have to come by sea; which adds, of course, still further strain on ports. Meanwhile commodities such as sunflower oil have rocketed in price and are in short supply in many countries. There are no Ukrainian wheat exports and no Ukrainian fertiliser. There are, though, lots of tomatoes. Ukraine has never actually exported much in the way of tomatoes but they are affected by the invasion all the same: wheat needs lots of fertiliser; tomatoes need little; so farmers short of the stuff are planting tomatoes instead of wheat. It is one of the more bizarre knock-on effects of the invasion, and unfortunately tomatoes cannot feed the world in the way that wheat can. If you want a perfect supply-chain storm, you have more or less got one. Things can undoubtably get worse, but I would not like to predict exactly how.

The combination of port congestion, container shortages and wider supply chain disruption has driven supply/demand imbalances to the extent that analysts Maritime Strategies International estimates the gap between effective demand and available supply to have been more than 15% in the past year. However, they estimate that over a million TEU ('Twenty-foot Equivalent Units', the standard measure of shipping volume) of capacity will be added to the international shipping fleet over the course of this year (2022), which will help ease some of the vessel shortages – but which, of course, will add to the pressure on ports. All those extra container ships, as well as those currently in the world, will need to be loaded and unloaded.

Given all of that, speed of unloading of giant container ships at quaysides around the world would seem one of the easier contributory factors to solve.

What then are ports doing? They are automating; they are digitising; they are ordering new lifting gear. All of which takes a while to implement; but they are on the case, and have been for some time: forecasts from even before the pandemic had been expecting maritime trade to triple over the next 30 years, and ports have been responding.

So too have governments. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced in December 2021 more than $241 million in grants to bolster US ports as part of the Biden administration’s near-term plan to address the clogged supply chain. The money is being made available immediately to 25 projects in 19 states. Next year, the amount of money for port improvements will nearly double to $450 million in grants annually for five years under President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure law.

So cranes and other equipment are being ordered and installed.

We shall shortly describe some examples.

Before we do, though, we might as well dispose of one more spanner that has been happily thrown into the works. As is well-known Cargotec, the major producer of port handling equipment, was due to merge with Finnish-based Konecranes. They have been working on it for years. The companies agreed their terms; the EU gave its go-ahead; all seemed happily set; and then in March this year the UK flexed its new Brexit-given independence and its Competition and Markets Authority said ‘No.’ Statements from both companies said they were ‘disappointed’; and they will continue to operate separately as fully independent companies.

So much for the background. With that out of the way we can talk about actual ports and actual lifting gear.

The Port of Virginia on the US east coast is not untypical. The port handled 296,201 twenty-foot equivalent units in February 2022, up 19% over last year, and is expanding. On March 25th this year a pair of new container cranes that will be among the largest of their kind in the US arrived by ship from China.

The cranes can reach across a vessel that is 26 containers wide, which allows the handling of the latest generation of ultra-large container vessels (ULCVs), and even higher-volume ships in the future. Built by Shanghai-based Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co., Ltd (ZPMC), each has a lift height above the dock of 170 ft (52m), a boom-out length of 226 ft (69m) and runs on a rail gauge of 100 ft (30.5m). The lifting capacity is 65t (US) under a twin-20-foot spreader or 100t (US) under cargo hook.

They will go into service in late May and represent the final pieces of a $450 million project which includes two similar cranes, already installed, and the widening and deepening of the harbour and its channels. “It’s a landmark moment because it signals the completion of the overall expansion of this port that started back in 2016,” said John F. Reinhart, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority. “With these units we’ll have the ability to handle multiple ULCVs at once at both our Norfolk International and our Virginia International Gateway terminals.”

Landside clearance of containers is equally important, and the Port has ordered three Konecranes Rail-Mounted Gantry (RMG) cranes to serve its Norfolk International facility. They will be remotely operated from a control centre, so they will not have cabins. They will lift containers 1-over-2 high, handling double-stacked trains, with a lifting height of 12.2m, span of 23.5m, and an outreach of 13m (42’ 8’’). The cranes will be delivered by the end of 2023.

A little further up the coast at Baltimore the story is not dissimilar. Four new and massive Neo-Panamax container cranes arrived there in September 2021 by ship, again from China, dramatically passing en route under the iconic Chesapeake Bay bridge. Ports America Chesapeake operates the Seagirt Marine Terminal there and made the order and purchase; it is part of a $166 million investment which includes enlarging Baltimore’s Howard Street rail tunnel, which will allow double-stacked container trains to reach the port and will also give seamless double-stacked capacity all along the East Coast from Maine to Florida. The container cranes are fully electric; each is 450 feet tall and weighs about 1,740 tons – 25 feet taller and 190 tons heavier than the port’s existing set of neo-Panamax cranes which it has had since 2012. The new cranes can extend 23 containers across on a ship and lift 85 tonnes; they are currently in their final days of testing and preparation and will become operational shortly.

The investment also includes a second, 50-foot-deep berth to accommodate mega-ships; a new truck gate complex; and, as at Virginia, an order from Konecranes, this one for 15 hybrid-electric rubber-tyred gantry cranes (RTGs) which are expected to arrive in three batches starting this spring.

The RTGs are partly financed by a $1.8M grant to the port for eco-friendly equipment; they are another step in the terminal’s long-term plan to have fully electric operation and zero tailpipe emissions.

Port NOLA, the Port of New Orleans, lies 100 miles up the Mississippi river but can berth large container ships none the less. Here too new STS container cranes are being delivered, once again from China. Four new post-Panamax cranes arrived at its Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal in December 2021, and again they are part of a modernisation investment which this time includes building a second, entirely new, container terminal, the Louisiana International Terminal, in adjacent St. Bernard Parish.

The 1,600 ton cranes are fully electric, with zero diesel emissions; they are slightly smaller than the Virginia and Baltimore versions, with a reach to retrieve cargo stacked 20 containers across a ship.

Meanwhile, across the 'Pond' in Europe, Liebherr also reports flourishing ship-to-shore business with expansion and electrification at its core. The company had a record year for their maritime mobile harbour cranes. “The order intake in 2021 was higher than ever before. We sold more than 80 new units as well as various used units worldwide. There was strong growth in the Middle East and in West Africa regions, and stable core markets in Europe as well as North and South America.”

So says Andreas Müller, sales director for Liebherr Mobile Harbour Cranes. “And another record was in the area of portal cranes. Liebherr has never before sold so many harbour cranes with a portal substructure.”

As in the US, electrification has been a strong driver. “Almost half of all mobile harbour cranes sold in 2021 were equipped with an electric main drive for emission-free cargo handling. The demand for electric drive solutions has doubled compared to sales year 2019,” says Müller’s deputy Andreas Ritschel.

“There is a clear trend within the maritime crane industry towards more electric main drives. Euroports Germany, based in Rostock, will commission Liebherr’s first all-electric large portal crane in the European market, the LPS 420 E, in 2022.”

A growth region for Leibherr has been Africa. “The continent has been experiencing an economic upswing for several years now, which has been accompanied by extensive investments in infrastructure. This development has been reflected in African ports for years and was also visible in 2021, especially for container handling. Liebherr has delivered two new LHM 800s in the high-rise variant to the Sogester Container Terminal in Angola, and shortly before the end of the year two more LHM 800s were shipped to Togo. The customer TIL Terminals will use them for container handling in the port of Lomé.” Liebherr describe their LHM 800 as the most powerful mobile harbour crane in the world. Owing to its huge dimensions – its jib is 64m long – the crane can handle vessels up to 22 containers wide. It can lift over 300 tonnes, and its bulk cargo capacity is claimed to be unique at 2,300 tonnes per hour.

Not all ports are going all-electric, though. It is possible to operate diesel-powered equipment in a more sustainable way using HVO, or hydrogenated vegetable oil. This is a fossil-free premium diesel product made from 100 % renewable plant raw materials. It has a chemical structure almost identical to fossil diesel and can fully replace it with no modifications to the engine and no loss of performance. When responsibly sourced it emits no additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In the first half of 2021 Liebherr delivered its first LHM 420 powered by HVO diesel to the Swedish port city of Södertälje. Södertälje was the first port in Sweden to convert to fossil-free fuels. However, the port will only use the diesel engine to move the crane at the terminal. Once the crane is at the desired location, the electric motor will be used for cargo handling. The port's electricity also comes from renewable sources, such as wind and solar power.

Currently most UK ports are operating mainly on diesel. Energy prices for all fossil fuels are, of course, rising steeply, in part but not entirely because of the invasion of the Ukraine. In the UK, in addition, the government announced in 2020 that in April this year (2022) it will remove from most industrial sectors the ‘red diesel’ subsidy – the lower tax paid on diesel used for industry and off-road vehicles. This will double the cost of fuel for ports. “It highlights the need for change,” said Lewis McIntyre, managing director of Peel Ports, which operates seven ports in the UK including London Medway, Great Yarmouth and Clydeport. “Recent energy price volatility is also triggering further impetus to transition to renewables and to do so at speed.

“Energy insecurity plays into this,” he adds. “The shift to net zero for ports is also part of the recovery mechanism after the pandemic. Businesses such as ours are using this as a real driver for change to get a greener economic recovery into the UK.” And he points out that the British Retail Consortium wants its whole supply chain, throughout the islands to be net zero for carbon by 2040. “Ports are a key component of the supply chain, so we have to lead in this move to net zero.”

The Port of Liverpool is one of those operated by Peel Ports. The Port’s Terminal 1 facility has just seen a 30 % boost to its quayside capacity by adding two further ship-to-shore cranes to the six already in place. The new cranes, from Liebherr, have an outreach and lift height of 40 m, a backreach of 18 m, a span of 16.785 m and a Safe Working Load of 40 t under single lift spreader. The crane design uses high tensile steel and a lattice boom and beam to give a lighter crane with reduced wheel loads, which was a key consideration due to the narrow span and quay structure at the port.

The port’s second terminal, Liverpool2, meanwhile saw the completion of a £400 million investment in January this year with the addition of five new cantilever rail-mounted gantry cranes from ZMPC.

The investments are paying off: in March Liverpool2 successfully deploying five cranes simultaneously for the very first time since the terminal opened in 2016, and the port as a whole handled 52,300 containers, an all-time record.

The world’s trade and supply network has shown itself to be fragile. Ports are a key part of that network; and they are working towards strengthening the links that keep the world functioning.

A satellite view of the Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal, March 2021. Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2021
Konecranes RMG cranes at the Port of Virginia
Baltimore’s new STS cranes are about to come into operation
Liebherr’s high-rise LHM 800 harbour cranes in Togo
Liebherr’s first all-electric LPS 420 E, destined for Rostock...
... and its HVO fossil-free diesel LHM 420 in Sweden
Liverpool’s five new gantry cranes