Collaborative stowage

XVELA, a unit of Navis, aims to help carriers and port terminals work together.

By Chris Dupin | American Shipper | April 18, 2015

As congestion snarled container terminals during the past year, one of the contributing causes pointed out by experts has been the improper stowage of containers.

Some port officials say not enough attention has been paid to “block stowage,” or the grouping of containers onboard ships going to similar destinations or by truck or rail.

“As ships have grown larger and resulted in more alliances being formed, the block-stowage process has been severely compromised,” Jon Slangerup, the Port of Long Beach executive director, told an audience during his “State of the Port” address earlier this year. “Now containers are being loaded by various carriers at multiple origin ports resulting in a more random loading pattern… It’s a phenomenal shift.”

He noted one terminal operator likened the arrangement of containers on arriving ships to an Easter basket filled with a jumble of multicolored eggs.

XVELA, a new business owned by the leading terminal operating system company Navis, understands this problem and is creating products using the Internet “cloud” so that terminals and liner companies can collaborate on cargo stowage and containerships can be worked more efficiently. The firm leans on Navis’s experience with its popular PowerStow software, which is the foundation for the new product.

“Today, in the vessel stowage planning and execution process, you have a process that’s been around for about 30 years,” said Chris Mazza, XVELA’s vice president and chief customer officer.

“The ocean carrier gives a stowage plan to the terminal operator via EDI (electronic data interchange) or email, expects them to execute it and then goes on to his next task,” he said. The United Nations’ EDIFACT message standard used to transmit this information goes by the acronym BAPLIE, which stands for “bayplan/stowageplan occupied and empty locations message.

“The ocean carriers don’t really have good visibility into the operations of the terminal once the vessel is there and underway, and they get a lot of information that’s latent, or delayed. There’s not a lot of collaboration,” Mazza added.

Bigger vessels have brought these issues more to the forefront.

“It’s a totally different world when a 15,000-TEU vessel comes to your terminal and requires 10,000 moves, than when two vessels require 5,000-TEU moves,” he said.

Such large ships “create an enormous amount of congestion, and it’s very difficult to work those big vessels. On the east-west trade lanes we’re seeing an incredible rise in the size of vessels,” Mazza said.

At the same time, carriers are operating containerships at slower speeds, but still must ensure they make their port calls on time.

Mazza likes to compare the situation that these carriers face to a Formula One race team. “You can lose the race with a pit stop,” he said. Even though a driver may be in the pit for two to four seconds, the most minor delay may result in losing the race.

“It’s a little bit analogous in the ocean carrier world, where if you’re trying to stay on schedule you really have to hit your pro-forma times,” Mazza said.

“When the vessel is in port or at the terminal working, you’ve got to make sure it gets out on schedule. So that means the terminal operator has to be more productive.”

The newest containerships have also undergone a tremendous increase to their capacities.

Terminal operators could work larger ships within the same period of time as their predecessors by adding additional ship-to-shore cranes to load and discharge containers. But in recent years, ship capacities have increased not by making ships longer, but by increasing their beam size so they can accommodate more rows of containers and increasing the number of containers in the stacks—both those on deck and in the bays underneath the hatches.

Because of the increased width, “today you can still only fit those same six cranes, although the vessel may have grown 20 to 50 percent,” Mazza explained.

At the same time, he said a gantry crane’s spreader used to pick and place containers on a ship must travel longer distances across the width of a ship, as well as up and down into container bays or on-deck container stacks.

Mazza said the interests of the ocean carriers and terminal operators are aligned in wanting ships to be worked quicker because they both want to maximize the value of their investments in those large ships and terminal infrastructure. In addition, they have a strong interest in making sure vessels keep to their published schedules.

Ships also save large amounts of money by slow steaming, but if they are delayed in a port they may need to speed up to meet a berthing window at another port or canal-crossing appointment.

Key for both parties is “stowage planning and execution. Today, because they don’t do it collaboratively, it’s a sticking point. What we’re proposing is that the ocean carrier and the terminal operator can collaborate on our cloud-based platform in real-time,” Mazza said.

For example, he said a carrier with an Asia-Europe service today might not provide details on how containers were stowed on its ship in Shanghai that’s destined to the port of Southampton until a day or two before that ship arrives in England.

If the terminal operator in the U.K. port could work six cranes alongside the ship and notices the stowage plan calls for all the containers to be discharged there are grouped together in the forward two-thirds of the ship, then it might be able convince the carrier to stow cargo more evenly across the length of the vessel in Shanghai in order to use its six cranes more efficiently and shorten the time needed to discharge the containers.  

“That means the ocean carrier wins, because now when he is hitting the subsequent ports in Europe, he stays on schedule. That is a big deal,” Mazza said.

“Fundamentally, the ocean carriers don’t do that today,” he said, but pointed out two prominent exceptions: the HUB partnership between Maersk and APM Terminals where personnel from the two divisions of the A.P. Moller-Maersk Group are co-located at terminals in such ports as Algeciras and Tangiers, and the partnership between OOCL and DP World’s terminal in Southampton.

Mazza said XVELA will work better once a network of terminals and carriers is developed and they are able to collaborate not just on the movement between two ports, but along entire rotations.

At last month’s Navis World conference, the company announced it signed on three new customers —Dalian Jifa Bohai Container Lines (Dalian), Ocean Africa Container Line (OACL) and Simatech Shipping LLC.

Matson Line, an existing user of PowerStow, will also become a customer.

XVELA will be sold as a software-as-a-service (SaaS). Ocean carriers will buy a subscription, and terminals will be charged on a transaction basis, with several pricing “tiers,” depending on how heavily the terminal uses the product. This “multitenancy” will allow competing companies to all use the same system, but still permit each company to restrict which companies and what data other users can view, much like how an online banking system works.

XVELA plans to release the entire product over the next 12-18 months. It took the first step at Navis World conference by releasing a terminal library module, which allows terminals to provide information to ocean carriers so they can efficiently plan and execute stowage activities.

Each terminal will be able to supply information such as how many berths they have, what is the quay’s overall length, how deep is the draft alongside the quay, and how many cranes each terminal has and what their heights and outreach are.

Today much of that information is stored manually, Mazza said, and is either contained in spreadsheets or simply known off the top of the head by experienced stowage planners.

With many ocean carriers centralizing stowage planning, he said some vessel planners never really see the terminals for which they are making their plans.

Next, XVELA will release a ship library module so carriers can build libraries of information about each of their ships, and these will be followed by other modules, including an EDI engine, vessel visualization, business tools, analytics, a data  hub, and programs for trim and stowage optimization.

XVELA’s leverage point is its robustness and wide acceptance of Navis’s PowerStow software, which Mazza said is used by 17 carriers, including five of the top 20 container lines—Maersk, MOL, NYK, OOCL and APL.

XVELA’s vision is that eventually programs will be built to fully automate stowage.

Mazza noted the system will be open so that if other companies develop stowage or trim optimization solutions, they will also be able to use XVELA as long as they conform to its technology specifications and application programming interface (API).

“If those come from competitors of ours, we’re willing to say, ‘Yes, we’ll allow you to put that on the system,’” he said.

Similarly, Mazza said XVELA is willing to integrate its stowage service with terminal-operating systems that compete with Navis.

This article was published in the May 2015 issue of American Shipper.

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