Computers, containers cut romance of the cargo docks

They're taking away the romance. That's what they're doing to the docks and the ships. The burly longshoremen with shirts painted over hard muscles are all but gone. Their days of swinging heavy hooks into burlap bags and carrying the load down bouncing gangplanks are almost over.

And the cornucopias of break-bulk ships are disappearing, too. These ships, with their small cranes lifting pallets and nets heavily loaded with a wide variety of cargo, from fruit to tires, from paper to engines, are also harder to find in US ports today.

In place of romance, the people who build the ships and the equipment to load and unload them have brought forth computer-controlled gantry cranes, ro/ro (roll on, rol off) vessels, and even a "moustrap."

After centuries of using basically the same technology to handle oceangoing cargo -- with vessels just becoming larger and faster -- ship and port technology has almost completely changed in less than 25 years. In the last year or so, new ships and new dockside equipment have been introduced that promise to advance the revolution in cargo handling even further.

One word best sums up the need for new port technology: money. Perhaps more than mot other businessmen, ship operators have pinned down the costs of their vessels and crew. Not counting the volatile price of fuel to run the behemoths, it costs about $14,000 a day to operate a typical container ship carrying some 1 ,400 twenty-foot-equivalent, containers, known as TEUs, says Dr. Ernst G. Frankel, professor to ocean systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

For these ships, DR. Frankel says, time spent in the docks loading or unloading, or -- even worse -- waiting in the harbor for a berth, is time better spent at sea. The less time a ship spends in port, the more trips it can make in a year and the more money it can earn. Thus port operators who can offer the fastest "turnaround time" do a better job of attracting ships.

To shorten this time and get ships in and out of the ports faster, several innovations have been introduced in recent years. One of these comes from Matson Navigation Systems, San Francisco. The key to the system is nicknamed the "mousetrap," as in "to build a better mousetrap." It is a compact container conveyor that stands by the ship as it is unloaded by the shipside crane. Normally, when the crane removes a container it is placed on a truck chassis or railroad flatcar, then moved to a stacking area.

With the Matson system, the container is placed on the conveyor, or "mousetrap" where it is picked up by a yard gantry that looks sort of like a giant coffee table on wheels. The gantry lifts the container from the mousetrap and slides it to a stack, or onto a truck or train.

Besides speeding up the loading and unloading process, the mousetrap eliminates the straddle carriers that traditionally moved containers around ports. These carriers, which cost over $300,000 each, are costly to maintain, needing some $80,000 worth of upkeep a year, Matson officials say.

So far, Says Matson spokesman Charles E. Regal, only two container facilities are being equipped with the mousetrap.The company is spending some $28 million to install the system at its own Los Angeles facility, scheduled to be ready this fall. A smaller version opened last year in the Port of Richmond, Calif., in San Francisco Bay.

The equipment at both of these facilities, and at a growing number of ports today, is computer-controlled. The clipboard is being replaced by a computer terminal that can identify all the containers in a port, tell what they contain, where they're from, and where they're going. The computer quicklytells a port manager the exact order for loading the containers on the ship.

While new ways to unload ships are being introduced, new ships are coming along as well. One of the more dramatic comes from Barber Blue Sea and is known immodestly -- but accurately -- as the Supercarrier.

Barber Blue Sea, A consortium of Norwegian, British, and Swedish firms, bills the 749-foot ships as "completely self-contained cargo handling centers with the ability to handle any type of cargo in all port situations."

There are six of the $33 million vessels that can carry up to 1,80 containers , or 2.2 million cubic feet of uncontainerized cargo. While the containers can be loaded by conventional dockside cranes, the ship's most distinghishing feature is a 40-feet-wide stern ramp that sticks straight up from the after port of the vessel when it is at sea.When it is unfolded, it can reach 163 feet from the ship so cargo can be driven aboard.

With the two-lane ramp, the ship can perform like a ro/ro vessel, loading everything from compact cars, heavy earth movers, buses, pleasure boats, and anything else that can be put on wheels or a trailer. The only requirement for the port is that the water be deep enough for the ship. Absolutely no developed port facilities are necessary, says Ole Hafsten, a Barber Blue Sea vice-president and general manager of the company's North American operations.

Mr. Hafsten is aware that the Supercarriers go against what many see as a trend toward increasing containerization. But he maintains: "We see that there will always be a need for ocean transportation of cargo that cannot be put into containers."

He said his group's ships also meet a need for ever-larger vessels capable of carrying huge loads. These ships, he says, could well become "mother ships," which call at only one port in a geographic area -- the North Atlantic ports on the East Coast, for instance -- and are "fed" by smaller boats and barges coming from the other ports in the area.

"The economies of scale would seem to call for this course," he commented.

In the future, says Professor Frankel of MIT, port operators will be looking closely at ways to handle the same -- or a growing -- amount of cargo in far less space. This will be especially necessary in places where containerization is growing rapidly despite a shortage of land to store the boxes.

one such place using an idea that could be applied to some US ports, Dr. Frankel says, is Hong Kong. There, containers are stored 10-high in parallel racks, each container in its own pigeonhole. A similar system is under construction in Barcelona, Spain.

Dr. Frankel says future port development may be installations. Prefabricated ports can be built in a shipyard and floated to the site, then sunk on a prepared bottom. There are none of these yet in the United States, he notes, but they are used in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Venezuela.

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