Inside the box

In today’s highly connected world, even a simple continental breakfast can become a global affair: How about a fruit salad sourced from Spain and Israel, served with Colombian coffee in a cup that was designed in Sweden and produced in Turkey? Regardless of its origin, what each item has in common is the complex logistical process behind it. Without an ultra-efficient, just-in-time delivery chain, even the quick cereal and milk alternative would be a challenge to organise.

Enabling such a highly diversified, choice-filled lifestyle is the humble marine container, a metal box measuring 20 feet in length and eight feet in width. In the US alone, 57 tonnes of cargo have to be transported per person per year to maintain the current level of consumerism, and almost all of it is traveling the world inside a container before reaching the supermarket shelf.

The vast majority of containerised freight will travel by sea first, on vessels that are considered the largest vehicles on Earth. But while a container ship has a higher value density than any other mode of transport, it’s the boxes they transport that make all the difference. They are easy to handle, reusable and can be moved seamlessly between a ship’s cargo hold, a trailer’s transport platform and a train wagon.

“The scale of the infrastructure that moves our stuff is staggering, yet we hardly notice it beyond appreciating how fast a book has arrived,” says New York-based journalist Dan Glass – indicating that a growing world population will force transport businesses to become more innovative to keep up with growing demand. “If we don’t figure out how to manage the influx, not only will our freight traffic slow to a standstill, so will we.”

Glass suggests that containerisation could be one solution to the problem, but it will inevitably put a strain on ports and require commercial road transport businesses to become even more efficient than they are today. He argues that as modern container ships can now carry up to 19,100 TEU*, they will require more and more landside capacity in the form of storage, rail, truck and drayage facilities, and other infrastructure necessary to avoid congestion. Simply put, the influx of goods entering through ports will require more container moves for these goods to eventually end up on the breakfast table.

Take the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port, which handled just short of 12.3 million TEU in 2014, up from 11.62 million TEU in 2013, or the largest US port in Los Angeles, which saw a volume of 8.4 million TEU last year, up six per cent from 2013. The Port of Shanghai, meanwhile, saw a 2014 throughput of 35.29 million TEU – a solid 4.5 increase compared to 2013.

“As ships bring bigger swells of goods and ask for quicker turnaround times, the ports are focusing on how to get those goods off the ship and on the roads or rails faster,” says Dan Glass. “So while ships are maximising economies, ports are focusing on efficiency.”

Curtis Foltz, Executive Director of the Georgia Ports Authority, told Glass that “moving more with less” is becoming the new mantra in ports around the globe. The authority recently converted as much equipment as possible from diesel to electric, including cranes that generate 30 per cent of their own power from gravity, and efficient rack systems for growing numbers of reefers, or refrigerated containers.

The ‘moving more’ part, meanwhile, often shows itself in the integration of different freight transport systems. “Intermodal efficiency is the biggest theme in freight right now, as the industry seeks the most efficient combination of modes for a load of cargo across the supply chain,” says Glass.

On a typical journey from China to the US, for instance, a container will be loaded in Hong Kong onto a container ship, offloaded by crane in Los Angeles onto a rail wagon for the long ride to Denver, Chicago or Houston, and then offloaded again onto a skel for delivery to the final destination – involving three different modes of transport along the way.

As a result, modern transport equipment has to become more and more flexible to facilitate quick loading and unloading as well as intermodal transport processes. Easy-to-tranship loading units, standardised swap-bodies and semi-trailers are the dernier cri in the developed world, with OEMs like Schmitz Cargobull now offering modular designs that allow transport businesses to mix and match frames, extensions, container locking mechanisms and additional equipment. Equally en vogue are side-loaders, which are able to self-load and unload without having to engage any additional equipment. Further down the supply chain, transport companies are now adopting consolidated, multiproduct containers, pallets and cartons to optimise capacity utilisation.

Machine-to-machine communication is another important area of improvement, with many transport businesses in the developed world now committed to modern telematics technology to track and weigh each container – not only for added transparency, but also to avoid queuing at the wharf.

In emerging economies, just that is still a major issue on the quest for added productivity – and it’s often caused by a lack of communications technology. At a conference in Spain last month, Olaf Merk, Administrator Ports & Shipping at the OECD, raised the issue again when he referred to thousands of trucks bringing gridlock to West African cities as they await containers, mostly due to a poor standard of communication. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as Merk indicated.

That’s exactly why Dawn Russell, Assistant Professor of Transportation and Logistics at the University of North Florida argues that optimising existing processes is only the first step to handling a growing global freight task, with a more systemic solution needed in the long run. In a 2014 article for Supply Chain Quarterly, he predicted that organisations could completely rethink their supply chain strategies  until the end of the decade.

One result of that reorientation could be to revert from offshoring to next-shoring to reduce the number of miles travelled. “Instead of procuring supplies and outsourcing manufacturing wherever it is cheapest to do so, more companies are now concentrating on performing those activities as close to end markets as possible,” he wrote. However, the consequence could be an increase in short-distance landside transport and a growing need for high capacity vehicle design. On top of that, transport businesses could pay more attention to shipment consolidation and 3PL logistics to make road transport even more efficient.

A research team at the University of Rotterdam has therefore come up with a more hands-on vision of future container movement**. Led by Dr Rommer Dekkert, Professor of Quantitative Logistics and Operations Research, the team proposed the establishment of a Chassis Exchange Terminal (CET), an off-dock terminal where container trucks consisting of a truck and a trailer would exchange their trailer with a container already attached instead of unloading and loading containers at the deep-sea terminal’s premises.

“Instead of visiting a seaport container terminal during peak hours, a trucker exchanges a chassis with a container at the CET,” the team suggests. “The CET will then use off-peak hours to transport the containers from and to the seaport terminals.”

Dekker et al. expect the entire process is to take about 15 minutes, “which is much less than times quoted at container terminals.” And due to the fact that the terminal does not rely on any terminal equipment in this scenario, it should theoretically ensure a turnaround time that only depends on the speed of the truck himself, as there is no container handling involved in the changeover.

The one thing that is unlikely to change is that a lot of our breakfast – just as almost everything else around us – will sit on the back of a truck at some point. Dan Glass says, “Trucks are the final mode for capillary distribution, essentially the first and last miles. Though trains are more fuel-efficient than trucks, they take longer to load and get moving, and don’t deliver to grocery stores or apartment buildings.”

According to Glass, trucks tend to carry goods destined for 750 miles or less from a gateway, within which the time and expense of adding rail to the mix usually trumps fuel-efficiency. That’s especially true for high-value items that need to reach retail shelves on tightly controlled timelines. After all, those bananas for your fruit salad won’t stay fresh forever.

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