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Self-Unloaders: an ergonomic logistic solution

In this fast-paced and interconnected world, a smart logistics solution can be a game changer in trading goods from one point to another. Among the several means used for inbound and outbound transfer of different types of cargo, bulk carriers are most counted upon for dry cargo. An excellent logistic plan remains the secret behind a fruitful execution. The future of logistics and transshipment is vividly adapting to the dynamic market and demands. Before we can understand the future of transshipment, it is important to understand the current market and movements.

The evolving market for bulk commodities is influenced by several factors, including global demand and supply, economic conditions and geopolitical events. The pandemic brought out an ebb and flow in the market for bulk commodities, thereby disrupting global trade and economic slowdown. However growth is becoming more steady as circumstances return to normal. The overall impact of the pandemic drives manufacturers and owners to be diverse in their perspectives to add value to their ambitions.

The current market exhibits dramatic variations in commodity rates, time charter rates, fleet size, and excess demand. The price per tonne of major dry bulk commodities — such as coal, iron ore, bauxite, manganese, etc. — has seen an annual increase of about 20% as of January 2023. It also exposes the fact that Panamax vessels, which can carry up to 85,000dwt match the charter rate of a Capesize with a capacity of 200,000dwt. The equivalent charter rate of the two vessels makes it more profitable to use a Capesize in place of a Panamax to carry triple the amount of cargo as that of a Panamax, thus reducing the impact of the shipping costs per tonne of transported cargo.

“Thanks to our expertise and knowhow in offshore logistics, we offer our clients our best guidance to optimize the return of their investments through offshore transshipment and by deploying selfunloaders,” says Bagya Vivekanandhan, Technical Specialist at Shi.E.L.D. Services.

A conventional transshipment operation that includes a shuttle, a transshipment facility, and the oceangoing vessel (OGV) to be loaded, includes the charter cost, transshipment cost, fuel consumption, and current freight rate. The increase in the price of commodities can put a business in a stressful corner to meet demands without letting its economy sink. An optimized transshipment solution would do wonders by overcoming this tricky challenge. Shi.E.L.D. Services investigated this rising demand and it strongly suggests adapting self-unloading transshippers — aka self-unloaders — to ease the flux of transshipment.

Self-unloaders are an optimal solution, as they are equipped with their own cargo handling system and storage for cargo, serving as both shuttle and transshipment facility. The reasons below justify why self-unloaders can be a smart solution.

Sailing through bottlenecks and loading bigger vessels: in cases where cargo needs to be loaded from a port terminal with restrictions when it comes to bigger vessels, the use of an adequate self-equipped vessel aids movement through the bottlenecks by transporting goods from the terminal to an offshore location to be loaded onto the destined vessel. It is hence possible to overcome the draught limitations of the operating location. In addition, overcoming the bottle – necks brings the possibility of loading bigger vessels, which allows the shipment of cargo with fewer trips. It reduces the overall shipping cost, thereby profiting the investor’s bottom Line.

Increased flexibility: self-unloading ships are typically equipped with advanced technology and machinery, which allows them to adapt to changing conditions and requirements. This increased flexibility can help companies to better manage their shipping operations and respond to changes in demand and other market conditions.


An analysis for a Capesize OGV that needs to be loaded was carried out by the expertise of Shi.E.L.D. Services. Upon understanding and elaborating on the case, it became clear that the use of a selfunloader for the offshore transshipment is a viable solution. But what were the deciding factors that led to this conclusion?

The project refers to a port which is used to export commodities via bulk carriers. The characteristics of the loading terminal at the port limit the size of bulk carriers to Supramax and Panamax, although the latter only partially.

To be able to load Capesize vessels, an offshore transshipment service shall be put in place, where a self-unloader acts as a shuttle vessel which takes the cargo at the loading terminal, sails to the offshore location where the OGV awaits, and transfers the cargo from her own holds into the OGV.

But what are the features that the selfunloader must possess in order to optimize the efficiency of this particular project?

  • It must carry as much cargo as possible during each trip, considering the port characteristics.
  • It must be operative in the shortest possible time.
  • It must keep the construction costs to a minimum.

Considering the above-listed requirements, the preferred choice is a second-hand geared Supramax of about 55,000dwt, to be converted into a self-unloader. Thanks to its dimensions, the Supramax can be almost fully loaded at the port. Furthermore, the geared Supramax is already provided with deck cranes, which eliminates the need for the procurement of new cranes, resulting in lower investment and a shorter delivery time.

This comes at the expense of reduced performances (the Supramax cranes provide a lower handling rate) which are nonetheless compatible with the project requirements. It must be noted that the cranes could always be replaced at a later stage, should the project requirements change. In addition, belt conveyor systems will be installed featuring deck hoppers which will receive the cargo from the deck cranes, with a series of belt conveyors taking the cargo to a shiploader with a capacity to unload the cargo onto the OGV.

Shi.E.L.D Services carried out a feasibility study with the aim of estimating the following aspects:

  • Performance of the self-unloader with the above-mentioned characteristics in terms of quantity of cargo handled per year, and days needed to fully load a Capesize.
  • Costs related to the conversion of the Supramax into a self-unloader.

The outcome of the feasibility study shows that, despite the time needed by the transshipper to sail back and forth between the terminal and the offshore trans ship – ment location, the fact that bulk carriers as big as Capesize can be fully loaded results in fewer shipments by OGVs, compared to using smaller bulk carriers. Also considering the initial capital investment needed to convert Supramax into a selfunloader and its operating costs, the analysis concludes that by deploying the self-unloader, the project economics increases by more than 20%.

This also highlights one of the advantages of utilizing self-unloaders: they function as an extension of the port which can therefore offer a wider size range of bulk carriers that can be loaded.

To conclude and as proven over the years, the adoption of self-unloaders has been an effective solution to open a gateway against limited port navigation for bigger bulk carriers. As long as the market outlook remains positive, there will be more and more occasions where selfunloaders can be successfully implemented.