Ship to shore
As bigger shipping dwarves the Gulf's ports, there is a race to upgrade the regions container cranes.
As ships get bigger and the Gulf's ports get busier, there is a rush to upgrade the region's machines in the ports to keep up with demand.
On the other side of the world, the widening of the Panama Canal means that ships can now routinely carry more than 11,000 containers stacked 22 wide.
This is known as super-post panamax, and these great whales need new and similarly oversized gantry cranes to unload them.
According to Liebherr container cranes marketing manager Gerry Bunyan customers rarely ask for any thing else.
"In our experience, Middle East customers are coming to us looking for much larger cranes than ever before, it's very rare that we are asked to supply anything below super-post panamax now," he said.
Container cranes differ from their inland counterparts as they feature a special lifting device known as a spreader, which can be expanded to carry 20, 40 or 45-foot containers.
Essentially, as the safe working load has been raised, the number and size of the shipping crates that can be moved in one cycle has grown. Initially containers were moved one by one, requiring a full lift-move-position return cycle per box.
With the advent of more sophisticated container spreaders came the ability to shift multiple containers per lift.
With the latest models of twin-lift spreaders, the crane operator can lift a 45-foot container or two 20-foot containers without changing the spreader.
The tandem spreaders available on the market allow even greater lifting capability with the ability to twin-lift the longest 45-foot containers or simultaneously lift four 20-foot shipping crates.
"The most significant mechanical development for ship-to-shore container operations has been the advent of the all electric spreaders, which are now available in a variety of configurations," says Lars Fredin, vice president, sales, at spreader manufacturer, Bromma.
To minimize the amount of time ships spend in port, the movement once containers have been picked has also been speeded up, with both the hoisting speed increased and the positioning of the containers made more accurate.
The newest technology has some ports such as Hamburg in Germany investing huge amounts of money in total automation.
Various types of port vehicles such as straddle carriers and fork lift trucks are work robotically, guided by radio frequency identification (RFID).
Such a system is currently uneconomic in the Gulf, where manpower is cheaper and harbour space is less of a problem.
Although shipping port cranes are not yet as advanced throughout the Gulf as they are in some European ports, the local region is modernizing fast and more and more terminal managers are involving technology to maximize the efficiency of the cranes.
"Generally the ship-to-shore cranes that we supply to the Middle East are not fully automated. What we have been seeing, though, is requests for the installation of systems that increase productivity, such as sensor-based straddle carrier and truck positioning systems," explains Bunyan.
The positioning systems that have entered the regional market are used to ensure that when containers come of the ship, the receiving truck or straddle carrier is in the right place.
Such systems centrally position the trucks so that the crane operator doesn't have any downtime trying to fine tune the container placement, which makes the whole operation quicker.
"In this region most trucks are still manned, so traffic lights inform the drivers exactly where to park. This reduces the complexity of the crane operator's task, so productivity is improved as the crane can get on with the next lift," he adds.
As long as trucking and development costs remain low in the Middle East, it is unlikely that complex automated systems will be put in place for some time.
That said, enthusiasm for new and advanced equipment remains extremely strong in the Gulf and port managers, ship owners and crane operators alike will no doubt follow the latest and boldest developments with great interest.
While the demand for Port Automation may only be small at the moment, the constant need to upgrade cranes shows no sign of abating. Bromma has recently received a contract for 29 Marathon yard crane spreaders for delivery to DP World's flagship terminal at Jebel Ali.
"These are the highest-productivity yard-crane spreaders that we make, with twin-lift, single-lift and separating capabilities," explains Fredin. A great many heavy-engineering products have started to filter through to the region.
Other major Middle East orders have included contracts for 18 all-electric spreaders to Bandar Abass, Iran and another 30 to Turkey. "Business in the Middle East really is booming," adds Fredin.
"The biggest business area for Liebherr container cranes is currently South Africa, but there has also been very significant demand in the Middle East for rubber-tire gantry cranes, and we are certainly aware of a big appetite in the regional market," explains Bunyan.
Ultimately, the decision about when and what technology to invest in comes down to the bottom line. Both now and in the future there will always be a question about balancing the money spent on big projects with the amount of return it will generate.
However, with ever bigger ships visiting increasingly busy ports, it seems likely that the plant, machines and vehicles that service them will get ever bigger and better in the race to get to shore.