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New metal shipping approaches try to break through inertia

Jun 26, 2013 | 08:00 PM | Myra Pinkham

Tags  ADS Logistics Co. LLC, Kevin Mullen, Norfolk Southern Corp., Jim Schaaf, Intermodal Association of North America, Raildecks Inc., Rick Jocson, BNSF Railway Co. Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd.

Getting products to customers in a timely, cost-efficient manner is very important, but many metal companies tend to be fairly satisfied with the status quo when it comes to transportation.

“When it comes to new products or technologies aimed at finding a more efficient means to move metals, there is very little currently on the horizon, and this status quo is likely to continue for some time,” said Kevin Mullen, director of safety and recruiting for Chesterton, Ind.-based ADS Logistics Co. LLC.

Trucking companies, railroads and shipping lines that metal companies use to transport their products are generally content using the same staid, old technologies and products that they have used for years, he said, and they don’t have the propensity to make a lot of changes--especially fast ones.

However, Jim Schaaf, group vice president for metals and construction for Norfolk, Va.-based railroad Norfolk Southern Corp., said that in addition to some physical products specifically designed to safely and efficiently transport metals, shippers’ access to information has been increasing--and continues to do so--at a pace never seen before.

He said metal companies use automation for a wide array of different functions, including allowing them to get rates and process and track orders. The railroads themselves also are using automation to improve their service, Schaaf said. For example, some use sensors or detectors to ensure the quality or condition of the rail cars hauling metals and monitor whether those rail cars are overloaded or unbalanced. “We are also using data collection technology to monitor our performance and to make changes,” he said.

Railroads also are looking to utilize certain developments to improve car service--usually coil car service, in the case of metals--and intermodal transportation, Schaaf said. “We need to find ways to expand our portfolio of services in this very truck-centric market.” That, he said, includes using intermodal transportation lanes where feasible to complement railroads’ carload business, which can help with transportation flows both for railroads and trucking companies, which have been heavily burdened, given changes in service hour rules.

While commodities traditionally have been transported either on flatbed trucks or via rail car service--including coil cars and gondolas--or breakbulk ships, there has been growth in containerized shipping, especially intermodal transportation.

According to the Intermodal Association of North America, intermodal container volumes reached a record 13.1 million moves in 2012, surpassing the previous year’s levels by 5.9 percent and up 9.8 percent from 2007. While the intermodal industry contends that shippers generally can save 5 to 15 percent per load shipping intermodally vs. shipping solely over highways, most metals continue to be shipped domestically via flatbed trucks.

Calgary, Alberta-based Raildecks Inc. aims to change that. After a six-year development process, Raildecks has begun full commercial production of its 53-foot-long, 120-inch-wide intermodal container, which chief executive officer Rick Jocson said is well-suited for transporting metals as it does not have walls or a ceiling. Jocson said the container’s patented support arm system allows it to be secured to the chassis of a flatbed truck or be double-stacked when traveling by intermodal rail.

The company has already sold or leased 130 Raildecks containers. “The majority of the freight being moved with Raildecks are metal products,” Jocson said. The containers are easy to load and secure, and there is less handling involved than in conventional transport by flatbed truck and rail car service.

He said that while some shippers have put certain products, such as structural steel sections or pipe, in containers, “that generally isn’t very safe, as the shippers don’t have the ability to properly secure them.”

Raildecks’ containers--which are collapsible--also provide benefits to freight carriers, Jocson said, by allowing trucking companies to work regionally, giving them time to make more runs per day and use lighter-capacity trucks. Service speed makes up for the fact that Raildecks containers can’t carry as much volume as a carload service, he said.

A number of Class 1 railroads have approved the use of Raildecks containers, including Norfolk Southern, BNSF Railway Co., Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., CSX Corp. and Union Pacific Railroad Co., as well as trucking companies Boyd Brothers Transportation Inc., Contrans Group Inc., Prime Intermodal Inc. and Universal Truckload Services Inc.

Jocson said that his company, which hopes to capture 5 percent of the flatbed freight currently moved over North American roads within five to 10 years, also has developed 45-foot and 48-foot versions of its intermodal containers for use in international and maritime business. “We expect to sign agreements with ocean carriers later this year,” he said.

One product aimed at the containerized transport of metal coils is Coil-Tainer Ltd.’s system.

Michael J. Smolenski, president and chief executive officer of West Chester, Pa.-based Coil-Tainer, said the company’s specially designed steel pallets fit almost perfectly in a container so that they don’t move front to back or side to side when the container is filled with metal--usually steel, but sometimes aluminum--coils for transport on ocean carriers.

Many container ships don’t accept coils because of the damage that can result if they are not properly secured, Smolenski said, which means shippers have to wait for breakbulk ships--which sail much less frequently than container ships--to transport their metal. “The Coil-Tainer pallets have also been designed to protect the coils,” he said. “The pallet has a special cradle lined with a protective material to which the coil is strapped.”

Another advantage for shippers, Smolenski said, is that Coil-Tainer is actually a non-vessel operating common carrier (NVOCC), with its own bill of lading, that takes care of all the details. “We take the booking, we pick up the coils and we bring them all the way to the receiver. The shipper just needs to deal with one company--us. They don’t have to call an ocean carrier. They don’t have to call a trucking company. We do all those things for them,” he said.

Typically, a steel company takes coils to Coil-Tainer’s warehouse operation at a pier, Smolenski said. “Then we take over. We load the coil onto our pallets, put them onto a container, send them over the ocean, take the container out of the vessel, take the pallets out of the container, take the coils off and deliver them to the customer.” He said that more than 200,000 tons of steel coils are transported by Coil-Tainer each year.

Smolenski said Coil-Tainer is constantly looking to improve its pallets. Two years ago, it went from a three-strap to a four-strap system to secure the pallets. Now the company is looking to redesign the pallets to make them lighter and stronger, possibly by using a material other than steel.

“We are also looking at developing another system similar to the Coil-Tainer pallet that would allow transportation of steel sheet in containers,” he said.

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