Just one decade ago, it was commonplace to see 2,000-4,000 TEU (20 ft. equivalent container unit) ships from multiple carrier lines crossing trade routes around the world. That’s what many US port terminals are built for – but times, they are changing. Carrier consolidations, shipping alliances and cargo sharing agreements have resulted in fewer, but larger ships calling in port terminals carrying massive cargo quantities. Mega-ships, capable of transporting 8,000 to 14,000 TEUs, were a sight to behold a few years ago, almost novelty, but now they are becoming the norm.
Their high container capacity and increased fuel efficiency (fuel for one ship vs. multiple) have led to increased cost efficiency for the carrier lines, but what about everyone else? How must US port terminals prepare for this influx of mega-ships and what impact does that have on the shipping industry as a whole?
Our terminals need a facelift.
Mega-ships are changing the infrastructure requirements of port terminals nation-wide and challenging them to rethink port operations, labor sourcing and equipment availability.
Smaller ports, unaccustomed to these massive vessels, don’t have the water depth necessary to allow these ships to call. Many have invested in harbor dredging, a process of removing sediment from the waterway, thereby deepening the passage and allowing mega-ships to arrive. Costly, but a necessary advancement.
Terminals will require more berth, yard space and updated equipment to effectively handle new mega-ship capacities. Many ship-to-shore cranes measure roughly 133 ft. from the ground and 5 can successfully work a normal-sized vessel. However, when an 18,000 TEU mega-ship comes to call, those cranes become obsolete. As a result, many terminal operators have been ordering super post-Panamax cranes capable of working ships with containers stacked 11 high on deck. 8 or 9 of these cranes are needed to work a mega-ship of that size. As an increasing number of mega-ships are deployed, more cranes such as these will be required to work ships faster and keep on pace with expected terminal productivity. That’s comes at a huge expense to any port terminal, no matter the size.
Time is money.
As the rate of mega-ship production increases, so does the need to invest in new cranes capable handling these ships and more highly skilled workers to operate the equipment. Crane related labor and unloading/loading mega-ships should be completed in a very detailed, tedious manner to optimized space. Workers have to be highly skilled and experienced in a certain niche area to correctly operate the cranes and work the large vessel.
Mega-ships bring with them cargo surges and when multiple ships come to call (a practice called vessel-bunching) it not only strains the equipment, but also the labor resources available at terminals, piling up costs across the supply chain sector. For example, when a 14,000 TEU vessel calls at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port and discharges/reloads 80% or more of its cargo, it requires 3-5 days of terminal attention, will be worked in two, 8 hour shifts each day and uses 5-9 cranes in total. One ship is tying up much of the labor and equipment available at a port, but does focusing a massive amount of cargo within a small timeframe (instead of spreading the cargo out over multiple days) matter?
The time required to sufficiently unlash and lash the vessel is yet another labor consideration. Lashing is the practice of securing containers stacked in rows on the ships with heavy bars to prevent movement while in transit. Smaller vessels require roughly 6 lashes for a successful voyage, but mega-ships need anywhere between 40 and 50. Think of how much time and labor is required in that process alone.
Is it worth it?
Many industry leaders have been questioning the use of mega-ships wondering if, in the end, they increase or decrease productivity at US port terminals. It’s hard to say, especially since mega-ship cargo is unevenly distributed across our waterways. For example, the Los Angeles-Long Beach and New York-New Jersey ports receive the greatest number of cargo surges and have the highest percentage of cargo unloaded/loaded at one port – both nationally and internationally. With so much mega-ship cargo focused on just two terminals, it’s difficult to ascertain the benefits/losses these massive vessels bring to the market overall.
To understand just how beneficial mega-ships may be to the shipping industry, it will be important to keep an eye on the Los Angeles-Long Beach terminal. It’s the only port in the world where virtually 100% of the cargo on the ship will offload at the same time. This terminal (and many others in the US) need to undergo some major infrastructural changes to efficiently handle the increase in not only the amount in cargo present in the port, but the size of the ship itself. All these necessary investments will come at a cost and it remains to be seen who will eventually bear the expense. If terminal fees are raised, that cost may be passed onto the shipper as a rate increase – but no one knows in a market as volatile as this one currently is.
Regardless of what happens, communication is going to become a critical aspect of day-to-day operations. Terminals must open lines of communication between shipping carriers, BCOs, truckers, railroads and every supply chain sector to ensure vessels are successfully managed within a tight time frame and port productivity is maintained.