By Jack Kohane

World economies may be beleaguered by uncertainties, but the news and new ideas emanating from this year’s Highway H2O Conference held in Toronto offered reasons for optimism. Particularly for marine transportation.

hwy_h2oThe pace of global growth continues slow and steady, according to Aron Gampel, Vice-President and Deputy Economist at Scotiabank, who kicked off the 8th annual Highway H2O conference, the leading cooperative business development platform for Great Lakes-Seaway System organized by the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation (SLSMC). “Output growth around the world is on track to register an average gain of 3.1 per cent in 2012, down from the 3.9 per cent increase in 2011 and more than 2 per centage points below the 5.3 per cent increase recorded in the first year of the recovery in 2010. The softer performance continues to reflect the recession in the euro zone, business caution in the United States, and the greater than anticipated slowdown in the large emerging economies… Canadian real GDP is likely to average just about 2 per cent this year and next, down about half a per centage point from last year’s 2.6 per cent, and roughly in line with U.S. developments.”

Although Canadian output growth has slowed, it masks the above-trend performances in the resource-rich regions where massive developments are underpinning comparatively stronger job and wage gains, retail spending, housing market conditions, and publicly-funded infrastructure improvements. Even in central Canada where export-sensitive manufacturers are continuing to be squeezed, ongoing gains in the large service sectors are providing a platform for jobs and spending.

Gampel predicted that in 2014, the U.S. economy should continue to gain momentum from increased spending associated with improving household finances and cash-rich businesses which have delayed major investments – both supported by continuing ultra-low short-term borrowing costs. “Reduced unit labour costs along with a weaker U.S. dollar should enhance the competitiveness of American producers and bolster exports as well. Canada will piggyback on the U.S. revival and the anticipated buoyancy in commodity prices.”

Bruce Hodgson told delegate that while 2012 presented a mixture of challenges and opportunities, there are some positive signs. North American commodities for the industrial and manufacturing sectors drove an uptick in tonnage numbers along the Great Lakes-Seaway System. The St. Lawrence Seaway reported an almost 10 per cent increase for total cargo shipments in October – 4.4 million tonnes – compared to October 2011. For the period March 22 to October 31, year-to-date total cargo shipments were nearly 30 million metric tons, a rise of 1.4 per cent over the same period in 2011. “We see continuing improvement and a drive to modernize our facilities for additional cargo handling,” stated SLSMC’s Director of Market Development.

Next on the podium, Hilary Judith Goldenberg, President of Thunder Bay Terminals, which handles metallurgical coal for Ontario and international markets, as well as dry-bulk commodities such as potash, urea and various agri-products, echoed the conference’s upbeat tone. “Macro forces are at work in the world economy. More particularly for us, macro forces are decreasing demand for coal in North America and are increasing demand for coal in European and Asian markets. We think that this shift in market focus could be good news for us at Thunder Bay Terminals and the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

Goldenberg presented promising numbers. Between 2000 and 2011 global coal consumption increased by 2.8 billion tonnes to approximately 7.8 billion tonnes. During the current decade coal use will expand at least another 22 per cent or an additional 1.7 billion tonnes. According to the IEA World Energy outlook, 1.3 billion people in the world have no access to electricity. In India alone, almost 300 million people have no access to electricity. “These stats point to growing demand in the export market for coal,” she pointed out. “We are at the head of the lake system, at Thunder Bay in the middle of the country. We have 11 million tonnes of throughput capacity and 2 million tonnes of ground storage. Macro forces are working in our favour and driving bulk product to seek different supply chains. Traditional routes to Asia and Europe are at or near capacity. Growth opportunities are within our reach.”

A thought-provoking and intensive two-day edition, this year’s Highway H2O event was themed “System Diversification: Unlocking New Growth.” Attendees, among whom were leaders in the public and private sectors representing governments, enterprise, and included the movers and shakers of marine transportation, heard and learned about some of the latest technological advancements in vessel service opportunities and operational development.

Representing Netherlands-based Aerolift Industrials, a world leader in the production of vacuum handling and lifting devices, Robert Lemm showed the capabilities of his company’s newest vessel loading machines to delegates. “Basically a vacuum lifting device contains 3 basic elements. A vacuum pump, a vacuum buffer tank and one or more suction pads,” he explained. Suction pads have a surface under which the device creates a vacuum. Due to atmospheric pressure, the suction pad and the load are pressed together. A suction pad with a suction surface of one square metre can lift a load of 4,000 kilogrammes (8,800 pounds).

Many types of materials are suitable for Vacuum handling, Lemm continued. “Concrete, steel and paper are our major markets but glass, wood and even windmill wings are suitable for vacuum lifting. Actually everything is possible as long as the product provides sufficient airtight surface to put a suction pad on.”

To load a ship’s cargo hold, Aerolift has designed two systems: the Aerolift ALS30/15/15, which Lemm estimates achieves a 50 per cent reduction in loading time; and the HLS15/9 (hook loading system), capable of a 30 per cent cut in loading time.

Aerolift’s systems operate on a C-frame which enables loading under the ship’s deck. Because of its shape, this device is able to reach almost 9m under deck with a maximum load of 15 tonnes. The device is equipped with two rotators, one rotator just below the cranes hook and one rotator between the C-frame and the load. These rotators can work synchronically and enable the C-frame to rotate independent from the crane and independent from the load. Positioning the load is flexible and the device’s reach of this device is optimized.

“Two ports are very interested in these new devices — Adani port in Mundra-India, and a port in Iraq, both for loading and unloading pipes,” noted Lemm. “Our devices are custom designed for a particular port. Every situation is different and so is almost every one of our devices.”

On the Seaway itself, Jim (Demetrios) Athanasiou, General Manager of business improvement for SLSMC, detailed how his organization is banking on hi-tech to boost safety, improve productivity, and gain increased efficiencies. He highlighted the Hands Free Mooring currently being tested at Lock 7 (the Welland Canal in Niagara region) of the Seaway system. “Customers are asked by lock personnel if they want to use Hands Free Mooring or traditional tie-up with wires, prior to their transit through lock 7. We encourage customers to use Hands Free Mooring, as we are continuously improving the system by making modifications towards optimal reliability and repeatability,” he emphasized.

SLSMC has also installed Vessel Self-Spotting Systems (VSS) in each of its 14 deep locks. The system controls are based on National Instruments PXI hardware and Labview software. It’s designed to provide 3D imaging of the vessel’s position in the lock. The most forward part of the bow is tracked to within 0.5 metre, to its final mooring position. A large 3-digit LED display, located at each end of the lock, relays the information to the vessel crew. VHF radio messages are also transmitted at certain key position intervals. VSS is expected to enhance the positioning of the vessel by providing ongoing, real time measurement of its position. At the same time, it will reduce the lock-operation cycle time by having all lock personnel available for mooring operations earlier in the process. It will also set the stage for potential further automation of the lock-operation process.

The last part of Athanasiou’s presentation focused on how hi-tech monitoring can be used to assess infrastructure quality on the System’s locks and canals. “We have the ability to do “cloud mapping” (computer imaging), to detect swelling of the cement walls of a lock, and how this information can be used for ongoing maintenance,” he said. Technology has helped increase our knowledge, our options and will likely have a significant impact on how we spend our money.”

Questioned post-Highway H2O conference, Vicki Bristow Ferguson responded that she found the conference to be “a great learning experience. I enjoyed hearing about the revitalization of existing ports and the modernization of the Seaway,” says the Business Development Officer for the Quinte Economic Development Commission, representing the communities of Belleville, Brighton and Quinte West (Trenton). “Hearing about these technology advances just widens my knowledge base. This assists me in my position here with the QEDC in that I have some information to draw on when dealing with potential investors to our region.”

First-time conference attendee, Johnathan Finlayson, Manager of Special Projects for Cole International Inc., a national customs brokerage and freight forwarding company, voiced his perspective. “It’s exciting to know that these technologies will not only save time, but will also increase the longevity of the system and improve quality and capacity for years to come.”