Latin America’s Proactive Approach: Inventive Ideas Increase Non-Container Productivity

Latin America’s Proactive Approach

Inventive Ideas Increase Non-Container Productivity

By Tom Hranac

In a region traditionally dependent on exporting commodities, depressed commodity prices, a stronger dollar and weaker global demand have caused an economic downturn in many parts of Latin America. Although it is not surprising that the region’s ports may have difficulties maintaining their non-containerized cargoes in these conditions, the successful ports are increasing their productivity through investments in technology and infrastructure.

Located in one of the most fertile agricultural regions of the world, the Pampas, the Port of Bahía Blanca in Argentina has a long history of specializing in the handling of bulk grains. The port has quickly taken advantage of the reopening of the Argentine commodity market, and in the first half of 2016, the port has already experienced a 43.3 percent increase in its bulk cargo traffic (5,018,207 tons) compared to the same time period last year, with considerable jumps noted in the movement of wheat (131 percent), barley (127 percent) and corn (67 percent).

While easing of agricultural export tariffs can help to facilitate movement of goods, Valentín Moran, General Manager at Bahía Blanca, maintains that previous investments in technological updates and infrastructure cannot be overlooked when analyzing the port’s recent productive success. “Higher productivity throughout the years has been accompanied by investments in loading equipment, automated systems, conveyor belts and latest generation scales. Above all, having a maritime traffic control system enables us to streamline and control the entry and exit of ships, providing safety and a better utilization of the calls at our port. It’s also necessary to mention that the latest deepening and widening of our navigation channels has allowed us to attract deeper-draft vessels. The most important factors that will affect our productivity are rooted in improving logistics, related infrastructure and warehousing capacity, always within a hopeful context of growing volumes and markets,” he said.

Bahía Blanca’s planning for increased productivity has already brought new investment to the port, with the announcement this past July 13 of a $15.4 million expansion of the grain bulk terminal operated by Louis Dreyfus Company, which is estimated to increase movement of grains through the terminal to 3 million tons per year.

The same penchant for proactive investment is shared by the Port of Santa Marta on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Since the majority of the port’s operational costs are budgeted by hour, Camilo George, Head of Communications at Santa Marta, recognizes that “without a doubt, new technologies will give us the possibility to continue reducing operational costs that affect our productivity in the future.” However, increased productivity can only be achieved by a combined investment in both “modern technology and workforce training,” George commented.

Thanks to their investment in human capital and the installation of the latest generation of equipment in suction loaders and automated scales, the Port of Santa Marta has been able to increase its bulk cargoes’ average rates of productivity from loading at 4,000 tons/day to more than 16,000 tons/day, with coal standing out as the most efficient, loading at 34,000 tons/day. Equally impressive is that Santa Marta’s ro-ro operation has seen vast productivity improvements, climbing from an average of 50 vehicles moved an hour to over 320 vehicles.

The Port of Santa Marta’s improvements in productivity have not gone unnoticed, and this past April an agreement was signed with the Japanese shipper K-Line to permanently receive ro-ro calls at the port.

Handling 60 percent of Mexico’s car trade as one of the country’s ‘Big 4’ ports along with Manzanillo, Lázaro Cárdenas and Altamira, the Port of Veracruz is a leader in other various non-containerized cargo operations. Yet by being such a large and diversified port, sometimes its own size can work to its disadvantage when it comes to port productivity. According to Captain Conrado Enrique Neervoort Suárez, Operations Manager at the port, the largest obstacle to increase its productivity is its “internal infrastructure,” as “various blockages at rail-roadway crossings on port property” hinder the movement of goods.

In order to tackle this problem, the Port of Veracruz has already taken measures that combine investment in physical and digital infrastructure to create more efficient cargo flows through the port. “We’ve been able to bring down auto congestion within the port to zero by building an adjacent Transport Logistics Support Center (Centro de Apoyo Logístico al Transporte, or CALT), which eases and controls access of trucks entering and leaving the premises. Additionally, we’ve implemented the ‘Mediport’ IT platform, which continues to process more and more paperwork online, from requests for docking service to the release of goods,” Capt. Neervoort Suárez said.

The port is also undertaking a two-phase, privately and publicly funded, $3.7 billion expansion. With addressing congestion issues and increasing capacity and productivity as goals of the project, roadway and double-track rail bypasses will connect the port directly with existing highways and Ferrosur/KC Southern lines and eliminate crossings.

While the Port of Veracruz is partially benefiting from the financial support of the current Mexican government, insufficient public investment in connectivity infrastructure, like many U.S. ports, remains one of the main barriers many other Latin American ports must overcome in order to further improve port productivity.

“Improving road and rail access to the port is one of the keys to growth at Bahía Blanca. In Argentina, we’ve seen a lack of significant investment in infrastructure for the past few years, and it’s time to reverse this productive reality,” Moran said. “Therefore we’re working with national, provincial and municipal governments to development the connectivity that can decrease economic distance between centers of production. We believe that this a key to success not only for the bulk sector but also for the port as a whole. We’ve challenged ourselves to provide better predictability and lower costs that will in turn increase our competitiveness,” he asserted.

Camilo George expressed optimism at the potential for further growth in the face of challenges. “In our country we have a major challenge, and it’s that overland transport is quite costly. Santa Marta has a great opportunity in that it is the only port city that can be connected with the interior through rail by having an existing line that is not being utilized due to various circumstances. There is a project to reactivate the rail line, which would decrease multimodal transport logistics costs by 20 percent. So that is why we are pushing for better ways to connect with center of the country through projects like recovering rail capabilities and the navigability of the Magdalena River, which without a doubt will catapult Colombia’s competitiveness,” he said.

Despite these hurdles, these Latin American ports have found a formula for success for their non-containerized cargoes through investment in technology and infrastructure. Their proactive approach to increasing productivity is generating results.