Today’s cargo handling needs extreme machines

posted on 14th June 2018

It may be stating the obvious, but a lot of air cargo is big and heavy. That factor, more than any other, has influenced the design of ground support equipment and, as weights and sizes continue to increase, cargo equipment is becoming increasingly specialised in many airports. The extreme demands also mean that, while other sectors of the GSE market increasingly switch to battery-electric operation, good old diesel will probably remain the motive power of choice for many years to come. Still, diesel equipment manufacturers are making efforts to clean up their environmental act

TBD Owen Holland, one of the UK’s leading manufacturers of ground support equipment – based in Bridgend, South Wales – sells dollies, trailers and cargo handling systems all over the world. Technical director Phil Summers explains: “We do anything from si mple roller beds to powered lines, though not big automated storage facilities, for both civilian and military users.”

Besides the UK, major markets include the Middle and Far East, as well as Africa and Europe, and the company has also signed a major tie-up with North American scissor lift supplier Tesco Equipment (no connection with the similarly-named retailer).

Plus, TBD Owen Holland manufactures a range of baggage, mai ntenance and catering handling equipment, although Summers notes that these days there isn’t that much of a crossover with these segments of the GSE market and cargo equipment. Whereas non-cargo users often specify integrated, powered lift vehicles, “the vast majority of cargo users, including the airlines and courier companies, use pallet dollies (pulled by tugs). Only if they move to off-airport locations do they think about self-contained vehicles.”

The heavy weights and large unit sizes encountered in cargo handling, together with the fact that most building up and breaking down of cargo pallets and containers is performed airside, mean that unpowered dollies are usually the most flexible and cost-effective option. Also, self-contained trucks tend to be the wrong height for many cargo handling operations, for which a 20-inch maindeck height is favoured.

Summers has noticed a discernible trend toward higher speed dollies, as airports have got bigger – the term ‘higher speed’ is relative, 20km/h as opposed to 10km/h. Also, when operators need to turn the load – frequently the case when the unit is transported on the dolly narrow-end first and also loaded narrow-end first onto the aircraft – inverted castors are now much more in favour than ball transfer units (BTUs).

With heavier ULD and pallet weights, operatives were finding it increasingly difficult to move loads on and off BTUs and, whereas inverted castors tended to be easier to use, there were question marks over their cost and durability – but these have now been resolved, says Summers. “For example, we’ve just had a significant order from the UK Ministry of Defence that will see all their cargo dollies go from BTUs to castors.”

The military, he adds, is increasingly moving to civilian-specification cargo equipment as it is cheaper to buy and easier to support. Moreover, the armed forces are making increasing use of civilian cargo aircraft.

The GSE market, like most others, has suffered in the recession but there are now clear signs of recovery, Summers considers. The Middle Eastern aviation market is still expanding strongly and elsewhere, operators who have deferred replacement of existing gear are now having to make changes as equipment reaches the end of its life. There has meanwhile been something of a rationalisation of the supply base in continental Europe, Summers informs, with a number of companies disappearing.

Greener diesel in Hong Kong

Kenneth Chan, director of Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited (HACTL) – one of the handlers at Hong Kong International Airport – says that new environmental standards are increasingly making their presence felt in GSE acquisition. He explains: “Up until this year, diesel-engined equipment such as hi-loaders, motorised passenger steps and belt loaders were required to meet EURO stage IIIA standards.

“From this year, Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK) has stipulated EUROstage IIIB or Stage IV standards as a minimum.” The new engines required are, naturally, more expensive than those built to the previous standard, he adds. Chan expects to be given a date by which all existing equipment must comply, but this has not yet been specified.

AAHK has also implemented a new airside vehicle licensing regime, including new, higher standards for diesel-powered GSE in pursuit of its strict environmental policies, “which HACTL fully supports”, Chan declares. Nevertheless: “GSE manufacturers have been surprisingly slow to respond to the move towards environmentally friendly equipment, when you compare this with the progress made on road vehicles in recent years, where fuel consumption has been dramatically reduced, along with emissions.”

While HACTL wants to obtain cost-effective, electrically powered or battery-powered ramp equipment such as belt loaders and lower deck loaders, these are not yet available. But, just to show willing, in late 2012 HACTL did purchase its first five-seater electric vehicle (a Nissan Leaf) for ramp transportation of staff and documents.

HACTL is meanwhile in the process of acquiring a new maindeck loader, a new lower deck loader, a belt conveyor (for passenger aircraft bulk loading), more pallet/container dollies and a tow tractor to cope with increasing operational needs.

As well as being physically equal to the task (in terms of weight capacity or lift height, for example), “reliability and the availability of local maintenance and spare parts support are critically important to HACTL, because of the scale and intensity of our operations. Initial costs are also important, but secondary to build quality, specification and reliability.”

Hong Kong is very different to almost every other airport in the world. For starters, it handles huge volumes, processing in one month what many gateways handle in a year. Chan says: “This equates to 24-hour operations, large numbers of vehicle movements on the ramp, large fleets of tractors, scissor lifts and pallet dollies, and a large workforce (2,700 in total, 230 of whom work on the ramp).”

The traffic profile also plays a part, he continues: “Unlike many airports, Hong Kong handles a high proportion of ‘shipper-built’ (or agent-built) units; they account for 55% of our tonnages. While this removes some of the onus on HACTL to build and break-down units on airport, it also means we are moving heavy palletised loads of up to 30 tonnes, while the maximum loading for single standard 10-feet pallets is 6.8 tonnes. It means we need highly mechanised equipment and systems that can accommodate this kind of traffic, and provide short-term storage. It’s more terminal operations than a ramp issue. But volumes, and the staff and equipment required to process them, put considerable pressure on our ramp operations. We also handle a large proportion of wide-body freighters,” Chan adds.

If and when it appears, the A380 freighter may require new-design hi-loaders that can access increased heights. But, for now, new aircraft such as the B747-8F can still be served by current equipment.

Living in electric dreams

Electrification of cargo handling equipment is a holy grail for handling companies but it is an elusive one. Wietske Wassenaar, procurement and fleet manager at handler Aviapartner Netherlands, explains: “We would like to try and electrify as much as possible but on cargo you cannot do very much at the moment.”

On-apron charging facilities at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol are currently limited and, while the airport authority is looking into rectifying this, there are other issues to consider. Charging time with current battery technology is one; if units are spending hours at a time being charged, that would mean increasing the fleet size, which would push up costs; plus, space would have to be found for idle machines in the middle of a busy operation.

Swap-outs of batteries, currently practised on lighter equipment such as forklifts, might be a possibility, but it would be hard to achieve with the weights of battery that heavy-duty loading equipment would need. The best prospect for electrification in the short term, says Wassenaar, is lighter duty kit like lower-deck loaders.

Other factors for her to consider are the long distances at Schiphol – runs of 5km or more are routine – and the unpredictability of freighter aircraft schedules compared with passenger services, meaning that duty cycles are longer. And there is also the cost of electric equipment to consider.

All in all, it is very tempting to continue to use diesel equipment for the time being and wait for battery technology to improve. There are promising developments in lithium-ion battery technology – already being trialled in some forklifts – that could dramatically improve charging times, perhaps by 100% or more. But it is likely to be a long time before a battery version of a 35-tonne maindeck loader becomes viable.

In the meantime, there is much that can be done to improve the efficiency of diesel equipment, Wassenaar continues. “One plan we have is to standardise equipment as far as possible within each station and among the different stations,” she says. This should improve spares availability, make it more viable for suppliers to keep specific spares in stock and improve up-times. But again,there are limits. “In some countries, it might be hard to get spares for machines that are not made locally. Also, we don’t want to be dependent on just one supplier. But we would like to standardise as much as possible within those limits.”

Diesel technology itself continues to evolve in terms of emissions and fuel consumption, and each new piece of equipment is a step-change on what was available before, especially as most equipment typically has a life of between 10 and 12 years or so. High diesel prices are an incentive to upgrade and modernise. But set against that is the high cost of new equipment in what is still a very specialised market.

A cure for ramp rash

New aircraft types are of course one of the primary drivers in the development of ground support equipment, says Mike Melander, loader product engineering manager at US-based equipment maker JBT AeroTech.

With new composite-bodied B787 and A350 aircraft coming into service, “a lot of attention has been focused on protecting the aircraft from ‘ramp rash’ caused by cargo loaders coming into contact with the aircraft,” he says. Unlike aluminium-bodied aircraft that incur clearly visible scratches, dents or holes when hit, composite bodies by design are resilient and return back to their original shape following impact, often leaving no visible marks to the exterior surface. But a big concern is possible internal structural damage invisible from the outside.

One solution for protecting the B787 and A350 from accidents is the Aircraft Proximity Detection (APD) system developed by JBT AeroTech for its Commander family of cargo loaders. According to Mike Melander: “The APD system is designed to assist loader operators in following correct operating procedures when interfacing and backing away from the aircraft. It features a base system, which includes a programmable logic controller (PLC), radar and hand throttle control providing safe driving speed during interface with the aircraft cargo door.

“The PLC allows the customer to make changes to the configuration after the loader has been put into service. For example, if the original configuration radar range is set at 6 metres but the customer discovers that this is too far, they can easily reset the range to 4.5 metres via the PLC. Options that can be easily added to the system include sensed handrails, sensed front bumpers, drive wheel alignment and side proximity sensors.”

The APD system can be adapted to meet the requirements of different customers’ operations and is available as a field kit for older model Commander 15/30 and ‘I’ series loaders, Melander informs. “We purposely designed the APD system to enforce adherence to the correct procedures, but not to fully automate them – to maintain the loader operator’s diligence”.

Another trend is towards lower operating costs, driven primarily by the high cost of diesel fuel. There has been a lot of interest in the Commander 15i electric loader whose efficient power system provides hours of uninterrupted service even in frigid operating conditions. The longer duty cycle between recharging is partly due to the Commander 15i’s efficient hydraulic system, which only requires high power during driving and lifting, with minimum power needed for conveying and lowering.

A further factor in favour of the electric model is the lower operating hours compared to diesel, because power is on-demand and non-operational idling is eliminated – which can reduce operating hours by up to 70%. This translates to reduced wear and tear and extends the time between preventative maintenance schedules.

Size is (almost) everything

David Henderson, chief operating officer at Middle Eastern handler National Aviation Services (NAS), says that the biggest driver of change is the need for larger and heavier equipment capable of hoisting loads of up to 30 tonnes to maindeck height. In fact, in the oil and gas and military markets in which NAS specialises, single pieces of 80 tonnes are quite routine now, although those are usually handled by bringing in conventional cranes or using the roll-on, roll-off capability of the larger Russian cargo aircraft.

“The 30-tonne maindeck lifter is very much our weapon of choice,” he says. “It used to be that we would have perhaps one in each fleet, but now they are quite common.”

There is a reasonable choice of suitable lifters available, although they are naturally more expensive than their lighter-weight counterparts. In the Middle East market, where it is still possible to fill up a 5-litre car for less than US$10, alternative energy isn’t really an issue and given the very low gas prices, the price just wouldn’t be attractive for operators, Henderson adds.

He has seen the Far East-based manufacturers make more inroads into the Middle East handling market. “Singapore, Chinese and Australian firms are all making increasingly impressive products. Five to seven years ago we would have stuck to proven US and European manufacturers, but nowadays they are offering machines that are virtually identical but at very different price points.”

The one factor that has kept the Western manufacturers in the game is their after-sales service, which is partly a function of market size. The larger the local fleet operated by a particular manufacturer, the more likely it is to have an engineer in the region and on call to sort out any problems with mission-critical equipment. “It is a little bit chicken and egg,” Henderson states. Nevertheless, the Far Eastern manufacturers are gaining ground, he believes.

The other trend that he is seeing is a move to wide-bodied aircraft, especially in the freighter segment. It is possible to use equipment designed for wide-bodies on narrow-body aircraft, although the former is more expensive. “We operate in 20 aircraft now and we regularly move equipment between them to accommodate growth or changes in the mix of traffic. This is in fact a major part of our equipment planning these days,” Henderson remarks.

Small is beautiful

But not all handlers deal in heavy freight. Paris Charles de Gaulle-based Sodexi, for instance, uses no conventional handling equipment because it specialises in small parcels and mail bags handling. “Our technology is closer to baggage handling than cargo handling,” explains the company, and it operates similar transit times. It has also opened a new sorting centre very close to the parking stands and passengers terminal, notes CEO Jean-Francois Bouilhaguet.

On the ramp it uses dedicated Fourmi tractors for fast transfer of containers, one of the few cargo handlers in Paris to do so. One development that has revolutionised the control of all handling equipment in Paris is the new XOPS IT monitoring system. Busy drivers of baggage tractors, cargo trucks and loaders cannot be expected to log all their movements by phone, radio or a PDA, but XOPS automatically monitors all operations in real time, without the driver having to take action. Up till now, XOPS has been seen as more crucial to baggage handling or catering and fuel dollies, but it is now being rolled out to cargo equipment too.

The system will soon be synchronised with the Charles de Gaulle International Airport video system. Not only will it show up any problems with GSE equipment but it will also be possible to interrogate XOPS memory to resolve disputes over late deliveries and similar issues.

Scanning for security

There are many other influences on the changing nature of today’s cargo systems and equipment. Thus, for example, government and – in particular – security regulations are having an increasing impact, says Anne Smirr, sales-marketing manager at Fraport Cargo Services (FCS), which provides cargo services at Frankfurt-Main, Germany’s biggest airport.

She explains: “As legislation imposes new regulations concerning security, FCS has already reacted by installing a brand-new x-ray scanning system. The HI-SCAN 180180-300kV-2is x-ray-control system, developed by Smiths Detection, is constructed to control bulky freight with excellent and precise imaging due to optimal x-ray geometry, while the HiTraX electronics and Hi-Mat technology make for better material distinction.”

Smirr adds that checks are more reliable and inspection times and effectiveness are improved: “We are proud to provide our customers with a faster handling, an improvement in processes and our employees with a modern workstation.”

FCS has also installed a new device for volume measuring which in connection with a weighing forklift truck generates the exact freight data for AWBs, delivery notes and tracking. It also has the benefit that it can detect freight whose weight has been under-declared.