Seeking greater efficiency

by Meyer Sosland
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Ship loaders and unloaders are an integral part of a global transportation system that is experiencing greater stress due to increased demand for commodities.

While the cost of shipping has declined from record highs earlier this year, it still remains many times higher than historical averages. Therefore, the need for quick and efficient loading and unloading of grain at port facilities is mandatory.

The traditional demands of the shipping community also continue but are amplified by increased costs and stipulations from their customers. Ports still want reliable equipment with minimal stoppage risks that have low operational costs (mainly energy, manpower and maintenance) but also reduced noise, low dust emissions and minimal product damage.

As Uzwil, Switzerland-based Buhler AG noted, grain shippers are seeing increasingly volatile market conditions that mean the value of cargo can vary dramatically during the actual shipping/storage/handling phase. More storage and enhanced storage handling in the ports is needed to "react to market movements." Buhler said it not only helps its customers with their loading and unloading projects, but addresses their needs in port terminals including truck loading, silo management and more. The company said it offers consulting solutions that help improve the unloading time.

Nivelles, Belgium-based VIGAN Engineering S.A. told World Grain that information technologies are becoming increasingly important to grain handling companies for optimizing their performances and tracing the bottlenecks for better economical results. The ship loader or unloader is only one element of the whole logistics system. It is crucial that the ship scheduling, all the aspects related with the ship journey in the port, the manpower organization and the dispatching of the goods are managed efficiently.

Within the global shipping infrastructure, demand for ship loading and unloading equipment is growing in parts of the world that are either seeing increased foreign demand for their domestically produced commodities or increased domestic demand for imported commodities.

More efficient shipping systems equal more cost-effective shipping systems. With this in mind, many of the world’s major grain exporters and importers are investing in ship loaders and unloaders to benefit from lower shipping costs.

Melle, Germany-based Neuero noted that there are several large grain exporting nations whose demands for ship loading and unloading equipment is being driven by their need to increase and update their shipping infrastructure. Neuero said it was seeing strong demand in Brazil, Russia and Ukraine for ship loaders and unloaders. On the importer side, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Korea and Africa are investing in their shipping infrastructure to reduce shipping costs, Neuero said.

Buhler said it has seen strong demand for ship loading and unloading equipment in Africa and the Middle East, while VIGAN noted that Northern Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia are seeing increased interest. VIGAN said Europe continues to be of interest, but it is a more mature market where there is less demand for big, new infrastructure projects. VIGAN said it was seeing some good prospects mainly in relation to the production of alternative energies (biodiesel and/or ethanol) and the transport by barges into the hinterlands.

While there is cause for optimism, suppliers of grain handling equipment and their customers are feeling the crunch brought on by the current volatile world economy. Buhler noted that the global economic situation, the weak U.S. dollar, increasing energy costs and commodity speculation have impacted the investment in infrastructure but also created many new opportunities.

Uncertainty is breeding caution. VIGAN explained that as the macro-economic situation has fluctuated, so has the staff that makes the decisions on major construction projects. These personnel changes have led to some stagnation on projects. VIGAN also said new safety, environmental and security regulations were slowing the progress of infrastructure improvements.

Despite these issues, the industry has benefited from deregulation at some ports, faster communication, real-time trading and efficient and rapid transport.

Buhler, Neuero and VIGAN said the trend of shipping more grain in containers is mainly due to the trade imbalance between Asia, especially China, and the United States (U.S.) and European Union (E.U.). Because of the trade imbalance, there was for a time an excess of unused containers that were shipped back to Asia empty. Some grain handlers decided to fill the containers with grain.

Buhler said shipping grain in containers can lead to quality control problems for flour millers due to high variations in the wheat protein and ash content. Buhler said blending facilities are necessary to reduce fluctuations during the tempering and milling process.

The Swiss company believes this method of shipping will continue to be a niche market. For large grain volumes, it is problematic to have storage facilities off site, Buhler said. It noted that transporting grain via container requires road/rail transportation, thus it loses the economic advantage over standard shipping methods. It added that this method is also only suitable for areas or ports where a container surplus exists.

VIGAN said it has noted a growing interest for this kind of transport, but that the company is not directly in touch with this market because the filling and the emptying of the containers with pneumatic machines is not necessary. VIGAN sees this method for transporting grain as cyclical and a geographically isolated trend.

While containerized shipping allows small quantities of grain to be shipped economically, Neuero said the big question is whether it will be a long-lasting trend. A change in trade balance between the U.S., E.U. and Asia would adversely affect this type of shipping, it said.

In recent months, the three companies have been busy with projects worldwide.

Buhler was chosen in 2006 as the general contractor for the ship unloading and loading project for Société du Port à géstion Autonome de Toamasina (SPAT) in the Port of Toamasina in Madagascar. The restructuring project also included new grain handling and storage facilities. The raw materials processed are primarily cereal grains that are imported from all parts of the world.

Responsibility for the complete project was placed with Buhler, with the exception of the civil engineering work, which was overseen by local companies.

The Buhler installation included: a new mechanical ship unloader, PORTALINO, with a rated unloading capacity of up to 330 tph of grains from vessels up to 30,000 deadweight tonnes (DWT); a transfer belt conveyor, which transports the grain to the silo intake headhouse for pre-cleaning; drum sieves and magnets for pre-cleaning; eight silo bins, each with a diameter of 22 meters (m) and a height of 26.5 m, which in total represents a storage capacity of 36,000 tonnes of wheat; and a plant control system, based on the Buhler "WinCos" Automation System.

The first phase of the project — the ship unloading, transfer installations and steel bins — was completed in September 2007. The plant has been operating successfully since its start-up.

The second phase, which will include new storage silos for export products, including ship loading installation, is scheduled to be completed by mid-2009.

Buhler also installed a new PORTALINO-Combi ship unloader/loader in China Bay at the Port of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. The owner and operator, Prima Flour Mill, is owned by the Prima Ceylon Limited Group. The group, which has a combined milling capacity of 3,600 tonnes of wheat per day, is among the largest flour mill operators in Asia.

The company operates its own pier in the Port of Trincomalee. Buhler had previously installed two pneumatic ship unloaders in the 1980s, each with an unloading capacity of 250 tph.

Prima Flour Mill wanted to ship pelletized bran but needed a new loader to accomplish this. The PORTALINOCombi is capable of unloading and loading wheat at a rate of 300 tph, and it can load bran pellets at 250 tph. The unit was commissioned in September 2007.

Neuero recently installed two 600-tph pneumatic ship unloaders at a new grain terminal in Egypt’s Port of Alexandria. Both ship unloaders have belt and scale systems.

The company also installed a new unloader/loader combo in Mainz, Germany, which is used to unload rapeseed at 200 tph and load it at 150 tph.

Neuero in recent months also installed two ship loaders, each with a capacity of 800 tph, at Russia’s largest grain terminal at the Port of Novorossiysk in the Black Sea.

VIGAN has also been very active in 2008. Its recent projects include:

• the installation of a ship unloader with a capacity of 200 tph at the Port of Havana in Cuba;

• installing a 600-tph capacity unloader on rubber wheels to unload Panamax vessels at the Port of Sudan;

• installing three mobile machines, each with 220-tph capacity and one unloader on rubber wheels (capacity 300-tph), at the Egyptian Port of Dekheila;

• and the installation of a 250-tph ship unloader at the Port of Chittatong in Bangladesh.

VIGAN delivered mobile machines in 2007 and 2008 to the Saudi Arabian Peninsula, Philippines, Algeria, Nigeria, Russia, the Republic of Congo, Egypt, Iceland, Syria, Greece, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Nigeria.

VIGAN has a contract to install a 500-tph ship unloader at La Reunion Island, located in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar, in November 2008. The company has several projects for largesize pneumatic and/or mechanical (SIMPORTER type) unloaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Greece and South Korea that are close to being finalized.