Clearing the docks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 April, 2006, 12:00am

FOR SOME PEOPLE, Kwai Chung is little more than a station they pass on the Tsuen Wan line. However, as the home of Hong Kong's main container shipping terminals, the area is at the heart of a sophisticated logistics network that stretches around the globe.

Every day, an average 28 vessels call at Kwai Chung port. They load or discharge about 40,000 teu (20-ft equivalent units) in container volume. Taking advantage of intermodal transport links, the containers connect by road, rail, barge or other shipping services, giving exporters and trading companies access to every corner of the world.

The volume of container traffic passing through the port, as well as the size of vessels, has grown steadily. Kwai Chung has been a vital part of Hong Kong's success story over the past three decades. To keep pace with developments, terminal operators are leading the way in deploying the latest state-of-the-art technology.

'Without computer back-up, it would be very difficult to operate efficiently,' said Joel Cheung, corporate affairs manager at Modern Terminals, one of Hong Kong's largest terminal companies, and with a growing presence in the mainland.

Operations such as ship planning and calculating vessel stability are now computerised. Specialist software and hi-tech systems also ensure that quay cranes work at maximum efficiency, and the time spent in port for vessels with a capacity of 8,000 teu or more is kept to a minimum.

Modern Terminals has also introduced software to map and plan the positioning of containers in the storage yard. This has been a huge boon to operations and to facilitating the multiple movements that take place daily, including lifts on and off trucks, transfers to or from shipside, and shifts in the terminal. The software has helped to streamline operations and optimise the use of limited space.

Containers can be stacked six high, but doing this requires a detailed calculation of weight, expected dwell time, and plans for onward movement, to reduce time-consuming or unnecessary rehandling.

Every time a container is moved in the terminal, a light flashes on a computer screen in the control tower. This is on the top floor of the main warehouse and office building, giving a bird's-eye view of all that is going on. Staff in the control tower can finalise ship-loading plans on-screen, oversee activities in the yard and monitor CCTV coverage of areas outside their line of vision.

The control tower team is in constant electronic communication with quayside crane and rubber-tyred gantry operators, all of whom have computers in their cabs.

Ms Cheung said the radio communication was discouraged so as to minimise the chance of errors caused by unclear reception or imprecise instructions, and also to limit noise in the control tower.

Technology is also playing a part in a pilot scheme in operations at Modern Terminals and Hong Kong International Terminals. This is in response to the need to step up security and check what each container contains.

The initiative, supported by the Hong Kong Container Terminal Operators Association, means that all export containers entering the terminals by truck now go through an Integrated Container Inspection System. Containers are scanned for anything that does not match the manifest, and checked for signs of radioactive material.

The increased use of all this technology has had an impact on job responsibilities and the type of vacancies available.

'Overall, fewer people are needed because we don't use manual systems any more,' Ms Cheung said. The focus now is on using human resources more efficiently and employing people trained to operate sophisticated equipment and systems.

Most training at Modern Terminals is in-house, because many of the processes are found only in container ports. For operational roles, the company takes on trainees with a standard driving licence, gives them several months' hands-on instruction, and follows this with practical exams.

The company was one of the first organisations to be authorised by the government to issue specialised licences for equipment operators.

In the past, container terminals depended heavily on the experience of former seafarers, who filled many ship planning and operational positions.

Now, with advanced systems, university graduates and secondary school leavers have a more direct route into the sector, and can look forward to careers in management or as IT specialists.