ECT WORKS BUGS OUT OF DUTCH TERMINAL

ECT WORKS BUGS OUT OF DUTCH TERMINAL

Europe Combined Terminals BV is close to driving out the last of the gremlins that infiltrated its showcase Delta container terminal at the Port of Rotterdam.

ECT has spent the whole year chasing computer software bugs that have plagued the $275 million state-of-the art coastal facility it built for Sea- Land Service Inc., its biggest customer."It was a public relations disaster," said Hendrik Schut, ECT director. "Truckers just couldn't understand why they had to queue for hours outside the world's most advanced container terminal."

But the terminal will be fully operational by year-end, Mr. Schut said.

Sea-Land is more cautious.

''We've got our arms around the software problem," said Jan Gelderland, general manager for Western Europe. But, he said, Sea-Land and ECT still face some "very stiff" deadlines to completely debug the terminal.

On one occasion, the terminal locked up for six hours, on another, the system could not differentiate between 20-foot and 40-foot containers.

Nevertheless, the terminal is living up to some of its promises. For example, the average turnaround time for a truck has been clipped to just 33 minutes compared with an hour at the old Sea-Land facility.

Rival ports sneered as the magic ECT/Sea-Land formula, which pioneered many firsts in container handling over the past 25 years, appeared to falter.

The first Sea-Land container vessel called here last December, and ECT executives set a March deadline to transfer all the U.S. carrier's business

from its old facility 15 miles upriver.

But the gremlins struck early and the facility was working at barely 30 percent of its 500,000 boxes-a-year capacity last June when Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, flanked by Sea-Land Chairman John Clancey, officially opened it.

The terminal is working at around 60 percent of capacity, or 275,000 containers a year, and it will be all-systems-go by the end of the year, Mr. Schut said.

ECT isn't taking any chances, constantly combing over its computerized terminal to ensure there won't be any more disasters. It also moved the rest of Sea-Land's business to a multiuser terminal next door to the Delta facility.

The main problems, involving the control system to move the boxes around the terminal and the connections between the ECT and Sea-Land systems, have been solved, Mr. Schut said.

But Sea-Land faces a long wait before the terminal delivers the promised 30 percent increase in productivity.

Sea-Land wants its cranes to lift 30 boxes an hour compared with just 20 to 22 now.

Other big league carriers, such as Maersk, Evergreen and Hanjin, are monitoring Sea-Land's learning curve as they must soon decide whether to opt for a conventional terminal or a Delta clone.

Most will choose a terminal similar to Sea-Land's, Mr. Schut said.

''The focus will come back" once the bad publicity fades, he said.

''When you push to the edge of technology, you get problems," Mr. Schut said. He dismissed ports that laughed at ECT's problems as "short-term thinkers".

Sea-Land's "courage and vision" in going for an untested, third- generation terminal will pay off in the long term, he said. A conventional facility will be outdated in 10 to 15 years.

Sea-Land itself is more downbeat.

"We have a very acceptable service level," Mr. Gelderland said.

But Sea-Land underlined its commitment to the new terminal in the summer by rerouting its growing traffic with Russia and the other ex-Soviet republics

from Bremerhaven, Germany, to Rotterdam.

ECT takes pride that it is advising other top flight ports, including Singapore, on robotics. And in time, ECT could set the global standard for electronic data exchange in container terminals.