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Intermodal Trends: What Should We Expect in the International Supply-Chain System?

The international supply chain is evolving to meet the need for consistency, increased velocity and visibility, and the incorporation of emerging technologies.

Logistics Distribution Warehousing 2007
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Change Agent 4: Re-engineering the intermodal yard, the container yard, and the ocean terminals by increasing density on current properties is the next generation "throughput goal" for intermodal yards. Current material-handling systems for container and intermodal yards are based on rubber tire gantry (RTG) and straddle crane technologies. These systems are limited in their "reach" and are generally deployed to support building or unloading a single-unit train-to-truck/hostler-supported chassis. While multiple gantry cranes can operate over one train, they generally are limited to one rail track and one line of trucks/chassis for loading or unloading.

New wide-load gantry cranes, also known as rail-mounted gantry (RMG) cranes, are emerging as an alternative to current mechanical choices for intermodal, terminal, and ocean terminal operations. The RMG's cranes can straddle up to six rail lines (which can be closer together than with traditional RTG cranes), two or three truck feeder lanes, and up to 10 rows of stacked boxes. The RMGs can reach boxes stacked on either side of the crane to build out future rail loads or export loads for the ocean carrier. These new cranes operate utilizing superior technology that allows the terminal/yard to more than double the throughput per acre over the more traditional operations utilizing RTG cranes and wheel-parking operations.

The new RMG systems have been developed to make every phase of the operation more efficient from an operational and cost perspective. These cranes are electrically powered and include a high level of automation. While it costs nearly three times as much as the RTGs, the RMG technology maximizes movement between each mode of transportation to eliminate the need for chassis and hostlers, reduce labor costs, improve safety, reduce acres required for the facility, and increase throughput of the facility by over 100 percent.

Change Agent 5:
New protocols for managing container yards are emerging and provide an improvement for container per acre usage in terminals and intermodal yards. While these technologies are emerging as first choice for marine terminals, these systems will migrate to intermodal terminals in the near future. Automation for a container terminal is comprised of robotically controlled RTG/gantry systems that - when combined with automated "container picking" and "container put-away" logic - provide the terminal operator with a more efficient operation, the ability to operate 24/7, lower labor costs, and higher use of land for storage and stacking containers. The new Maersk-affiliated container terminal in Portsmouth, Va., which began operations in August 2007, is utilizing a highly automated, computerized terminal that promises to revolutionize the local container shipping industry. Some of the equipment that will be incorporated in this high-tech facility includes six large 110-ton container cranes on the wharf; approximately 30 unmanned, rail-mounted, computer-controlled gantries; and a smaller number of wheeled manned gantries.

Change Agent 6: China is in the process of constructing 18 inland intermodal logistics export hubs. What possible impact will this have on domestic intermodal traffic and why? Currently, most cargo moving from China is consolidated or stuffed at port locations, not at the inland origin factory site. This process is changing as China's inland transportation system continues to evolve. Its system will increase dramatically in efficiency when the intermodal export hubs are completed and goods are transported from deep inland China via the rail to ocean terminals for loading onto carriers. This intermodal system will provide access to lower-cost labor and increase transportation efficiencies. It will also provide added security for cargo as it will be loaded and sealed at the points of origin, which will provide a more secure system and increased visibility when linked to China's rail carriers' train-management systems. China's ability to streamline supply chains, improve security, and reduce costs leads us to predict another level of cargo flow on container ships that needs to be unloaded at our ports and transported to inland destinations, adding significant strain to an already stressed infrastructure.

These change agents will not happen all at once, but taken in context, the intermodal system of today will be different in many ways in the future, and the importers ability to provide security and have accountable visibility (and therefore increased efficiency and flexibility) will evolve until the next supply-chain improvement increments are implemented. In the short term, the key question remains, "Where do the boxes stop?" The answer is the same real estate answer, "Location, location, location."

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