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Heavy Lifters - Cranes, Heavy Lift Shipping, Engineering and New Technologies

Posted 30.05.2019
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Compared to new technologies, conventional engineering in shipping is a relatively simple science: computable and generally predictable. However, heavy lift shipping presents challenges that go far beyond what is required with standard unitised cargoes. The transportation of project cargoes - often highly valuable components of multi-billion-dollar projects - requires expert planning to ensure they are loaded and transported safely and efficiently.

For example, last year AAL shipped two giant cyclone vessels (22m x 11m x 10m and weighing over 500mt each) to Petronas’ US$27 billion RAPID project in Malaysia. For such a project it’s essential to gauge the ratio between the weight of cargo to crane capacity, and also the displacement of the ship. Once these ratios approach unity and especially if they are combined with many other cargoes, detailed planning is required to have an optimal solution. In this respect the two cyclone vessels presented a number of challenges. They were loaded onto the AAL Fremantle, one of our 19,000dwt S-Class vessels, in Mailiao, Taiwan, using its combined 700mt cranes to safely lift and stow the cargo into one of its three giant, box shaped holds and weather deck respectively. Two weeks later they were safely delivered.

The human element

As a specialist multipurpose carrier, first class engineering skills and experience are fundamental to AAL’s reputation as an expert in transporting project cargo for such industries as mining, agriculture, oil and gas, energy and construction. We believe the most important factor in the safe loading of complex cargoes is not the specification of our equipment - important though this is - but the human element.

Lifting equipment can be broadly similar across the heavy lift industry, at least amongst specialist carriers. A high-quality carrier should invest in effective engineering equipment when lifting, loading, securing, transporting and unloading the extraordinary cargoes seen in the multipurpose sector, but it is the human element that separates one cargo carrier from the next, especially when a few centimetres can make all the difference, or when it comes to the effective use of vessel to give maximum intake.

We are proud to operate one of the youngest and most advanced fleets in the sector. Our 21 multipurpose vessels offer superior infrastructure with side-mounted heavy lift cranes, large and even deck space, removable and height-adjustable ‘tween decks, large box shaped cargo holds with independent dehumidifiers, strengthened tank tops as well as appropriate lifting and lashing equipment. With our mix of 31,000 dwt A-Class, 19,000 dwt S-Class and 33,000 dwt W-Class vessels, we also lead the ‘Mega MPP’ vessel segment (30,000+ dwt).

However, the key to our success is the expertise that we can deploy from our in-house technical and engineering team. This team has over 70 years collective experience and a track record of being entrusted with some of the largest, heaviest and complex cargoes ever transported by sea in their segments. The role of our engineering team is to plan and execute complex cargo handling and securing solutions that ensure the safe transit of cargo, vessel and crew from port to port. It comprises the expertise of engineers, seafarers and naval architects to cultivate a detailed understanding of each cargo and its unique requirements.

New technologies – theory and reality

The heavy lift shipping industry has slowly implemented many new technologies in many aspects of their work. But if one looks at the technical aspect, there can be discrepancies between the theory and the reality.

While new technologies such as 3D-simulation, finite-element analysis and motion response analysis are slowly working their way into the daily operations of multipurpose shipping, understanding of how these technologies contribute to the safe handling of project cargoes fluctuates across the industry. In such cases engineering capacity can be lost in trying to implement these complex calculations, without comprehension of the benefits. Multipurpose shipping is already a highly specialised sector and new technologies must be thoroughly understood before their implementation disrupts the accepted standard. Continuing without this can result in additional costs and resources, and may also affect the safety of the operation.

On the other hand, as more general cargo carriers muscle in on the multipurpose sector, we’re seeing the industry’s best practice methods become diluted. Crews of general cargo carriers may not necessarily have the right knowledge and experience to safely transport the multi-billion-dollar cargoes common to the industry. For instance, some such crews and vessels might stick to the 1 m initial stability during the lift, as opposed to considering other relevant stability criteria, or confuse the requirements between damage and intact stabilities.

The new IMO Resolution MSC.415(97) is an important milestone in heavy lift shipping. When it takes effect in January 2020, for the first time there will be international legislation setting stability criteria for lifting procedures, so it is important for crews transporting project cargoes to understand and adhere to best practice methods and calculations.

Project cargo expertise

The ability to deliver improvements in efficiency is particularly important in a tough market. Competition has intensified with non-specialist operators, including bulkers, container lines and RO/ROs, making forays into the heavy lift market. This is a concerning trend that affects quality, as well as potentially impacting safety. Heavy lift shipping requires specialist solutions. In the energy sector for instance, it takes years of expertise to plan and execute the safe delivery of cargoes for today’s power generation projects.

Project cargo can be considerably more complex than standard breakbulk, and there is a real risk that some operators will not ask the right questions or may overlook small but crucial details; details that would be second nature to a project cargo specialist.

We have undertaken complex projects that have been judged as technically impossible by other carriers, and yet we delivered these cargoes safely, on schedule and within budget. High quality lifting equipment is essential, but to optimise this technical capability also requires careful planning and precise execution.

An experienced team of project cargo and operations specialists surely play a crucial role in working in partnership with the customer. In a fast-moving industry where people regularly move on, knowledge and experience are at a premium. Although the immediate responsibility may lie with the freight forwarder, the global energy giants behind some of the world’s biggest power generation projects still want to know that their cargo is in safe hands. 

Emerging technologies

Exciting technological developments lie ahead. Just like autonomous cars are now being tested on our roads, the first autonomous ship will be tested in 2019. Today conventional ships with deckhouse aft are limited when transporting tall cargo in case visibility from the command bridge is impaired. But the authorities must rethink. As long as safety standards are met, surely, they must accept new technologies such as proximity sensors and infra-red cameras to replace the naked eye.

There are other interesting technologies, such as Big Data Analytics, Virtual Reality, Expert Systems or Artificial Intelligence. All have hardly touched our industry yet, but I am sure they will find applications in the future, along with the already available 3-D simulation and, to a certain aspect, intelligent stowage planning.

The engineering tools and methodologies used in shipping have remained relatively the same for the last 15 years. If shipping is to keep step with technology, then we need to evolve, including our physical tools. However, whilst the equipment used is important, investment in the right people is still the key to maximising the value of a carrier’s engineering capabilities. It takes time to train young people to become experts. If we want to maintain or even push up the standard we must be prepared to invest to keep the industry interesting and attractive for young and brilliant people to join the industry.

By Yahaya Sanusi, Deputy Head of Transport Engineering, AAL

First published in Maritime Reporter

Author bio: Yahaya is Deputy Head of Transport Engineering at AAL, and has worked in shipping for more than two decades. Prior to joining AAL, Yahaya worked at Thyssen Nordseewerke shipyard, Macor Neptune, and Beluga Shipping.

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