For generations, unloading tropical fruits from incoming ships and reloading them onto land-based transportation has been a labor-intensive, low-technology business, even at modern European ports such as Hamburg, Germany.
Lately, however, state-of-the-art technology has become a critical part of the process at these ports and particularly at Hamburg, the European Union’s second-largest fruit transshipment facility after Antwerp.
The port’s most important improvement for handling fruit is its new O’Swaldkai Terminal, a €35 million, 75-hectare facility.
A climate-controlled operation, the terminal is monitored by cameras and sensor equipment. The moment anyone enters into the vast air-conditioned hall at the heart of the terminal, the entire system comes to a stop, minimizing the risk of intruders. Each pallet stored in the high-rack shelving and retrieval system carries its own bar code, and each code is matched to a radio frequency identification chip on the pallet.
A computer determines the shortest possible route that shelf stackers can take to load and unload. Technology tracks and documents the route of each shipment from the unloading of the vessel to loading onto a refrigerated truck for delivery.
Even the process of loading trucks with imported produce has been transformed by technology. Devices known as “ballerinas,” a sort of pallet carousel, speed throughput at the tail end of the process.
Thanks to such devices, the terminal can receive up to 650 pallets of imported fruit per hour, and about 350 pallets can be dispatched to customers, including major supermarket chains throughout Central and eastern Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic states.
The terminal handles some 750,000 tons of imported bananas annually, and another 100,000 tons of other fruit — apples, pears, grapes, pineapples and citrus. Most bananas arrive in Hamburg as noncontainerized cargo, transported on reefer vessels from Ecuador, Colombia and the Caribbean. The same ships carry some reefer containers filled with fruit.
Although Hamburg is still Europe’s largest railway port, the fruit is delivered to customers exclusively by truck, said Bengt Van Beuningen, a spokesman for Port of Hamburg Marketing, “because trucks are more flexible and cheaper than railway.”
Transporting bananas by rail would require specialized railcars that are “too costly to operate.” Oddly enough, considering Hamburg’s key role as a railway port, “The conversion of our terminal also meant the disappearance of the existing rail tracks, which until then had been used for reefer rail wagons,” said Michael Sieck, managing director of the divisions of Hamburg Hafen und Logistik that handle fruit transshipments and project cargo.
The ambitious modernization efforts began four years ago, when HHLA’s management board decided its fruit transshipment facilities, which dated mostly from the late 1970s, were outdated. HHLA decided to modernize its facilities for handling other types of cargo, which range from motor vehicles to heavy project cargo. That side of the business is run by Unikai Lagerei-und Speditionsgesellschaft GmbH, which is 51 percent owned by HHLA, and 49 percent by Grimaldi Lines.
Not everything about the fruit transshipment process is automated. Dockside, fruit handling still involves manual labor because a large portion of the cargo still arrives in Europe on conventional reefer ships that must be unloaded manually.
O’Swaldkai handles 220 ships annually. Ships are unloaded using elevators and mobile cranes. Forklifts operating inside the sealed halls are battery-powered. Moving cargo from ship to storage sheds is done using diesel-powered forklifts fitted with exhaust-filtering technology.
Hamburg was able to accelerate its learning curve by studying similar modern facilities in Antwerp, Europe’s largest fruit transshipment port. “The model for this facility is located in Antwerp,” he said. “We were able to gain valuable suggestions for our own facility and then improve on this tried-and-proven principle in crucial aspects. More than anything, we were largely able to eliminate the kind of teething problems common to leading-edge technologies.”
Although Hamburg handles about 140 million tons of goods annually, noncontainerized general cargo accounts for only around 3 million tons.
Breakbulk volume held up better during the recession than containerized cargo. “Breakbulk was not hit as much last year as container traffic,” Van Beuningen said. Some products, including usually recession-proof bananas, did not decline at all in 2009. Noncontainerized cargo volume at Hamburg declined 14 percent in 2009, but containerized cargo dropped 28 percent.
“Investments in breakbulk facilities and terminals helped the port establish its position as a universal port and have brought more business to the port,” Van Beuningen said. Sixty percent of noncontainerized cargo was imported and 40 percent was exported last year.
This year, the port expects to handle an additional 4 to 5 percent of noncontainerized general cargo, Van Beuningen said.
As for project cargo, project consignments and heavy loads amounted to 340,000 tons in the first half of 2009, up 2.1 percent year-over-year. Although imports of project and heavy-lift cargo declined 1.2 percent from a year earlier, exports increased 3.4 percent.
Last August, Unikai’s multipurpose terminal team loaded an oversized consignment manufactured by Linde Group’s engineering division in Pullach, Germany. The team used a mobile crane to load 3,600 cubic meters (1,271 cubic feet) of system components aboard the Grande Buenos Aires, a Grimaldi Lines vessel that transported the cargo to a petrochemical plant in Brazil. These sorts of massive consignments could become more frequent as Brazil’s industrial development expands rapidly, port officials said.
Contact Alan M. Field at firstname.lastname@example.org.