Semi-automated cranes

Cargo-handling purchase makes big impact for Va. companies

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Print this page Jessica Sabbath
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The Port of Virginia will purchase 86 rail-mounted gantry cranes
over the next two years.
Photo courtesy Port of Virginia

In February, the heavy-lift vessel Happy Buccaneer carried six automated-stacking cranes from Poland to the Port of Virginia’s Virginia International Gateway terminal in Portsmouth.

These rail-mounted gantry cranes are the centerpiece of the port’s $695 million plan to increase capacity at the port’s two largest terminals. Last year, the port signed a $217 million order to purchase 86 cranes from Finland-based Konecranes. The order was the largest purchase of rail-mounted gantry cranes in history.

The first set began operating on the terminal in April. For the next two years, an additional six cranes will arrive every six weeks. “As we bring these cranes into service and we get enough new capacity, we’re going to start taking down some of the older, existing cranes and retrofit them with new technology, new drive motors,” says Joe Harris, spokesman for the Port of Virginia.

The cranes will allow the port to start benefiting from the investments well before both expansion projects are scheduled to be complete.  Twenty-six cranes are destined for the Portsmouth terminal, while 60 are heading to Norfolk International Terminals, the port’s largest terminal.

These cranes also are an example of how investments at the port can reverberate throughout Virginia.

Roanoke County-based TMEIC (Toshiba Mitsubishi-Electric Industrial Systems Corp.), a wholly owned subsidiary of TMEIC Japan, is outfitting the cranes with automation technology.

TMEIC’s Roanoke County operation primarily provides engineering and management for the company, which specializes in making the industrial motors and the electronic drive systems that control large rotating machinery.

TMEIC provides automated technology for cranes at ports around the world. “This is the largest port-related project we’ve ever worked on,” says Michael Cooper, marketing director for TMEIC, “and it is absolutely wonderful that we’re doing it here in Virginia.”

But TMEIC is no stranger to the Port of Virginia.

When the Virginia International Gateway terminal was built in 2007 — at that time by private company APM Terminals — TMEIC supplied the automated technology for the rail-mounted cranes. (The Port of Virginia later signed a long-term lease of the terminal.)

These automated cranes will operate similarly to the existing ones. TMEIC’s systems interface with the terminal’s operating system, which tracks the thousands of containers at the port terminal at any particular time. When a motor carrier arrives and needs a specific container, the cranes will automatically find and retrieve the box.

An operator from a control room monitors the cranes. “So the operator is going to be able to see exactly where this box is, and if it’s off by more than two inches he’ll take control, and he’ll bring it into position using the joysticks for the final landing,” says Cooper.

Crane operators likely would need only an hour or so of instruction to learn how to handle the new cranes, Cooper says. “The basic principles are the same,” says Cooper. “But of course the computers that are running these things are worlds apart from 10 years ago. And there have been major technological enhancements and advancements in the lasers and laser control systems that enable us to see the environment around the crane.”
Cooper says the company has been hiring retired engineers for part-time and flexible work arrangements to handle the additional work load.

Another Virginia-based beneficiary of the cranes project is PortRail Crane Service in Portsmouth.
President Dan Stevens started the business in April 2015. The  company specializes in maintaining cranes and cargo-handling equipment. When the port announced its major crane purchase, the small company secured the contract to assemble the cranes. “We were lucky enough to be hired to erect the cranes,” says Stevens.

The project also allowed him to hire many of his colleagues who had worked for him in his previous company, Port Equipment Service,before it was sold in 2006 to Kalmar, an international company providing cargo-handling solutions to ports.

Since winning the port contract, Stevens has increased his number of employees from 12 to around 40. “It was all great timing, and we are able to bring the family back together, and to get some great work at the same time,” Stevens says of his employees, some of whom have been working with him since 2000.

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