Project Logistics: Doing the Heavy Lifting

Project Logistics: Doing the Heavy Lifting

The professionals behind special logistics projects need to attend to details, prepare for problems, and focus on the big picture.

Even before a certain notorious microbe started commandeering headlines, special logistics projects required a commitment to sweating the small stuff while focusing relentlessly on long-term objectives. But then the new coronavirus started disrupting everything from factory floors to global transportation networks. Here are three special projects that became exercises in pirouetting on the proverbial dime.

Seeds of Hope

In spring 2020, with passenger planes still flying—on reduced schedules and sans passengers—airlines the world over began considering how to make use of all that suddenly superfluous legroom.

For one American Airlines Cargo team, the answer came in the form of survival essentials. Virus or no virus, people have to eat, and so farmers have to farm. For all that to happen, crucial seeds have to arrive on time.

That’s why the team focused its brainpower on how to maximize every cargo-friendly inch of the Boeing 777-300s that would normally ferry passengers between Buenos Aires and Miami.

Even before the pandemic, American played a role in the supply chain that puts corn cobs on your dinner plate and tofu in your pad thai.

For more than one decade, American Airlines Cargo has been a key player behind the little-known seasonal migration of corn seeds and soybeans—in fall, from the northern hemisphere to its southern counterpart, then in spring after the seeds have wintered in summer splendor, and back to fertile soil well above the equator. (This proprietary process, in which the jet-setting seeds stay comfortably warm, reportedly improves planting yield by up to 40%.)

Lorena Sandoval, director of cargo sales for Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America for American Airlines Cargo, has seen this operation play out with nary a hitch for much of her three-year stint in her current post.

Here’s how it worked in the past: Each year, from March through May, American would relegate sizable space in the baggage hold of its routine passenger flights from Argentina to Florida. Then, during the course of several weeks, tons of boxed seeds would share space with the duffel bags destined for the Sunshine State.

“From Miami, the seeds would be distributed to the rest of the United States, especially the Midwest and the West Coast,” Sandoval explains.

Traveling by truck, the seeds would arrive at the country’s farms just in time for planting.

COVID-19 made that normally seamless process more difficult. Still, Sandoval says, “The seeds simply could not tarry abroad any longer.” Not if U.S. farmers were going to feed the nation and large parts of the world.

Determined to avoid a major disruption in the food supply chain, American dedicated whole flights to seeds. In the first weeks between April and early May 2020, it shipped a whopping 290 tons of light-as-a-feather seeds.

On April 16, 2020, a flight shattered American’s all-time record for freight volume, moving 115,349 pounds of soybean seeds, which American calculates as equivalent to 76 hefty heifers or 20,900 portly chickens. This shipment represents a sizable jump from the now-retired record of 103,384 pounds of cargo transported aboard a 777-300 on a 2014 Los Angeles-to-London jaunt.

“We were able to do it just because we didn’t have the bags,” Sandoval says. “In this case, the baggage hold was 100% seeds.”

The Miami-to-Buenos Aires leg of the flights was equally productive, with American shipping tons of pharmaceuticals—among them, medications for diabetes and cancer treatment—and technology essential for powering many newly launched home offices.

Impressive though the new cargo record is, it wasn’t the point of the operation. That was more existential.

“These are the seeds that will help the United States get a good harvest for September and October,” Sandoval says.

A Powerful Gust of Effort

On May 2, 2020, the Port of Vancouver USA in Washington welcomed, from faraway Shanghai, the MV Star Kilimanjaro to North American shores. Aboard the mammoth vessel: nine wind turbines and 27 supersized turbine blades. Their final destination: Canada’s Golden South Wind Project, scheduled to open in 2021 in Saskatchewan.

Once the ship was safely docked, longshoremen began the nerve-wracking task of unloading the unwieldy equipment. Spanning 220 feet and weighing 23 metric tons each, the blades alone required a well-coordinated step-by-step process, as well as special equipment and expertise.

Days later, with the transfer from vessel to terra firma successfully accomplished, a host of logistics pros could safely exhale.

The effort, says Alex Strogen, the port’s chief commercial officer, offered perfect preparation for what promises to be an even more daunting operation later in the summer, when the Port of Vancouver takes delivery of even longer vanes, becoming “the first port in the United States to clear blades of this size,” he says.

In the future, as turbines increase in size, Strogen expects the blades to get longer still. After all, he says, “the bigger the turbine, the more energy you can get.”

For the team behind the tricky delivery, flawless execution was a fitting reward for a future-focused business decision made years previously.

More than one decade ago, the port placed a bet on renewable energy, particularly wind energy. Sure that wind would figure prominently in North America’s energy portfolio, the organization’s leadership decided to ensure that the port would be the West Coast’s destination of preference for the receiving and movement of large-scale wind turbine components.

“We started this a long time ago with efforts to acquire cranes, and we also developed a lot of lay-down area, because that is what you need,” says Steve Mickelson, the port’s sales director. With turbines and blades in mind, the port invested in two Liebherr mobile harbor cranes, prized for their dexterity and lifting capacity.

Just as important, Mickelson adds, the port committed significant square footage at two different terminals for adequate lay-down areas. These were required for temporarily housing the equipment ahead of their truck journey to wind farms far and wide.

Lifting and storing the cranes proved formidable enough, but the front and back ends of the project also required carefully calibrated efforts. The first high-wattage challenge involved planning. Given the sheer number of stakeholders and their varied geographic vantage points, that was no easy feat, Strogen says. But close collaboration among all parties—including the manufacturer, marine surveyors, labor representatives, the ship’s owner, the heavy-haul trucking company, and various local and regional governing bodies—was essential.

Still another challenge was ensuring the Star Kilimanjaro could negotiate the notorious Columbia River Bar—”probably one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world,” Strogen says.

That’s where the famous river meets the Pacific and where currents, swells, and sediment combine to churn chaos. Negotiating the bar is a precursor to the eight-hour journey up the river to the port.

For the bar pilot in charge of getting the Star Kilimanjaro to Vancouver, just getting aboard the ship represented a departure from standard processes.

“These wind energy vessels are unique for the pilots to board,” Strogen explains, noting that the pilots typically access ships by helicopter.

But that wasn’t an option with the Star Kilimanjaro because the blades occupied every inch of the weather deck, meaning there was no room to drop the bar pilot onto the vessel from above.

“Instead, the bar pilots used their small, specially designed pilot boats capable of self-righting after being rolled over by huge waves to get the pilot on board,” Strogen says. “The pilots have to make a leap from their pilot boat to a ladder hanging down from the cargo vessel and then climb up the side of the ship to safely guide the vessel in.”

The precarious trip through the bar wasn’t the only stress for the team managing the operation. The coronavirus also contributed its characteristic headaches.

Initially, the shipment was due to arrive earlier in 2020, but with China shutting down manufacturing to contend with the pandemic, the delivery was pushed back by several weeks, Strogen notes. Stateside, the virus also created labor dilemmas that made it difficult to staff the operation.

Typically, “ports can flex during high-demand situations by pulling in labor from neighboring ports,” Strogen says. “That option fell by the wayside in early March.”

At that point, longshoremen from other West Coast ports, including nearby Portland, Oregon, could not travel to Vancouver to help out. And so, he adds, “We truly had to stand on our own two feet.”

That meant unloading the turbines and blades took longer than expected, mostly because of union and safety limitations governing how long individuals could work, Mickelson adds.

It took five days to offload the nine units and their dozen or so components, with the blades themselves requiring a full 30 minutes each to swing from the Star Kilimanjaro onto Washington soil.

The operation, which Strogen describes as “an unprecedented effort,” enlisted 35 longshoremen working gang-side, ship-side, and at the lay-down site.

Once the turbines were offloaded and sheltering in place at the lay-down areas, the port began preparing to transport the turbines off the property by truck and trailer. That, too, was largely glitch-free, thanks to advance planning.

As Mickelson explains, “These particular blades can’t make a turn-out of the premises.” Nor could they clear the nearby railroad tracks standing between the port and access to the closest interstate highway.

Undaunted by these hurdles, the Port of Vancouver lowered a nine-foot fence to facilitate travel through the port premises. It also constructed an asphalt overpass over the rail tracks to ensure that the blade-bearing heavy-haul trucks could begin their four-state, two-country journey.

“Basically, our challenge was to get these blades to I-84,” Mickelson says.

That done, the team could safely release a collective hurricane-force sigh—and then begin preparing to repeat the feat later in the summer.

Plan A, B, and C

When Eduardo Rey, managing director of Dachser Peru, faces a logistics challenge, he draws on his background in architecture.

He studied the subject at Universidad Ricardo Palma in Lima but couldn’t find work when he graduated during an economic downturn. A career in logistics seemed improbable, but it complemented his sense of organization and drew on his gift for big-picture visualization.

Both skills were in high demand during Dachser Peru’s recent assignment to ferry two 180-ton locomotives from the Port of Houston to Peru’s Port of Callao, and from there to Dachser’s railroad customer a few kilometers away.

Documents describing the scope of work had no sooner landed in his inbox than Rey launched his customary process. “I made some rough sketches to understand what we were talking about,” he says.

Rey quickly broke the project into four phases and calibrated their timing to the minute. First and second, Dachser would ensure that the locomotives were safely loaded onto and discharged from a ship bearing two cranes capable of lifting and maneuvering the awkward cargo. Onshore cranes were not an option, largely because they introduced an element of unacceptable risk into the operation, Rey says.

Next, the equipment would need to be perched on heavy-haul trucks for the twisty journey through Callao to nearby Lima. And last, the locomotives would need to be offloaded at the customer’s rail yard and positioned on tracks.

Rey drew on his network of logistics vendors to identify the right ship and help him book space for the locomotives. The freight was scheduled to leave Houston in February 2020 for a 12-day journey that would progress through the Panama Canal and continue to the west coast of South America.

And then came the first of the glitches that would require Rey to quickly deploy his considerable troubleshooting skills. One locomotive arrived at the Port of Houston precisely on schedule. “But one of them was lost in the United States,” Rey says. “It moved to another state.”

Finding and retrieving it fell to the vendor tasked with delivering the locomotives to Dachser’s custody. Nonetheless, Rey had to deal with the fallout and re-reschedule every subsequent part of the operation, including booking ship space for a future date.

The locomotives finally left Houston at the end May, “when we were in the middle of the coronavirus quarantine,” Rey says.

Once the ship reached Peru, skeleton crews at the port meant docking had to be delayed by two days. And that required further adjustments to Rey’s carefully recrafted plans.

Fortunately, the plans had solid foundations, allowing for a smooth transfer from deck to awaiting truck.” But thanks to the pandemic, Rey wasn’t allowed on port premises. It fell to a subcontractor to brief him, via show-and-tell photos, on every aspect of the process.

The last leg of the journey was slated to occur at night, when traffic would be light and advance crews could easily raise the overhead cables along the route. But those plans went afoul after a recently instated curfew. Working around that, Rey says, required special permitting—and patience.

Just after the locomotives arrived at their destination, assembly began on two cranes commissioned to deposit the vehicles on nearby tracks. Given the many delays, it was fortunate that Rey was able to book the in-demand machinery for as long as needed.

With both cranes in place, Rey could decompress and size up the operation. Looking back, there was little he would do differently, he says, but the experience confirmed that every possible scenario, from lost product to a pandemic, requires plan A—and plans B and C.

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