Material Handling
Thursday | 15 January, 2009 | 6:10 am

Northwest packages

By John Loos

January 2009 - Getting from here to there. It’s a simple sentence but a complex reality. Henry Hudson died looking for the near-mythical Northwest Passage, all in the name of finding an easier way to move people and products to Asia. After months of icy aimlessness, his crew mutinied and set him adrift in Canada’s Hudson Bay.

Finding efficient and safe avenues for transporting a product shouldn’t be a matter of life or death. Without considering where it’s going and how it’s getting there, transporting steel is already a tricky endeavor, given its vulnerability for damage. Because of this, trying to minimize shipping times and costs while ensuring orders are handled properly can be a headache. In this case, the aspirin is varied transport options, which U.S. ports inherently have but which aren’t always maximized.

The Port of Longview, Longview, Wash., strives to be a transportation hub of a different kind. Opened in 1921 and located on the Columbia River just 66 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the port has a long history of handling the Pacific Northwest’s famous timber, making it equally suited for heavy loads of steel. Today, along with steel, the port handles a variety of bulk cargo and breakbulk commodities, including lumber, logs, paper, pulp, wind turbines and heavy-lift cargo. And as it moves forward, steel continues to be in the port’s crosshairs.

"Steel is very much part of our marketing strategy," says Valerie Harris, director of marketing for the port, adding that it provides a unique handling challenge for workers. "If you have steel coming into your facility, you must have labor that, No. 1, is open-minded and willing to try something new and, No. 2, is confident so that you get the production. That’s a challenge. Utilization of the labor in the best way possible can be a challenge when handling steel. And we found a niche way to do that. The more steel we handle, the better we get at it."

Easy access
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the Port of Longview is its access to road, rail and water. Along with its seven marine terminals on the Columbia River, the port is also served by the Union Pacific and BNSF railways, and it’s located within a few miles of Interstate 5.

"We have some of the most outstanding transportation infrastructure that I’ve had the opportunity to participate in," says Harris. "I used to be a customer in the Port of Longview before I became an employee, and I routed my cargo through Longview for that very reason. We have easy access to the interstate, dual service by both the BNSF and the Union Pacific railroads, and the access for trucks in and out of the port is easy because there’s little or no congestion. In addition, we have waterborne traffic. I can’t think of a better way to plan a supply chain than to have access to all three."

Danny Younce, general manager of Cascadia Metals USA Inc., Longview, Wash., a steel service center chain with a self-owned facility located within the Port of Longview, knows the benefit of shipping and receiving steel through the supply chains the port can create.

"They’re used to handling timber, so they’re used to handling big items," says Younce. "Pipe and coil have to be well taken care of. They have indoor storage to where they can bring it in if you need it stored indoors. And their location is unbelievable. You have the Columbia River, the rail line and I-5 within a stone’s throw of a port. And that’s a huge shipping advantage."

This geographic advantage is coupled with a strategic one. Whereas ports can be passive in the sense that they may wait for cargo to come to them, the Port of Longview aggressively seeks cargo through a network of related companies, such as steel shippers, brokers, logistics providers, freight forwarders and ship lines.

"We act as a business connector," says Harris. "We provide the services, but we also help network people together to attract cargo. And that may be a nontraditional role for a port. Sometimes, in my experience, ports kind of sit back and wait for something to come to them. But we’re out there networking and talking with people and trying to make connections."

This unique brand of networking has fostered a certain back-scratching referral strategy. If a shipping opportunity arises that the port might not be able to handle, it’ll refer that customer to another shipping company in its network. Likewise, these companies will pass along business they can’t handle to the port. This enables the port to handle shipments from across the country, as far as the East Coast. A recent East Coast steel company used the Port of Longview to send 20,000 tons of steel plate to Asia, a mighty task made easier by the equipment and labor of the port.

"The cargo came into the Port of Longview on rail, and we unloaded the railcars, staged and sorted the material and loaded it onto ocean-going vessels for export to Korea," says Harris. "We’re capable of handling that cargo and preparing it for export. We’re not seeing a lot of imports, and we understand that the market may turn and shift even further to an export market. We want to connect people so they know what services we have to support their supply chains."

Handle with care
Along with plotting an efficient and cost-effective shipping strategy, steel companies must also worry about how their cargo is treated in and between transit.

"Even though steel sounds like it’s a hard item, steel is soft and pliable," says Younce. "Anything you do to it can cause damage to it. Handling it is literally like handling glass. If you bump into it, if you bend it, it’s worthless. So it’s important to have somebody who takes care of your cargo."

Knowing this, the Port of Longview continues to invest in new equipment and handling strategies to ensure the steel passing through its operations is handled safely and conscientiously. The port has two reach stackers, as well as a regularly upgraded fleet of heavy-duty and light-duty forklifts and lift trucks. It also regularly purchased a $4.6 million mobile harbor crane with a lift capacity of 104 tons. Although this crane is primarily used to handle the large wind turbines and wind tower parts (wind energy makes up roughly 25 percent of the port’s cargo), it’s equally suited for heavy steel shipments.

"We’re constantly making investments into new equipment," says Harris, adding that because of the precise and delicate handling needs of steel, upgrades are essential. "When you’re handling this commodity, you can’t have enough equipment at the right lift capacity."

Ultimately, if there were a third element making up the Port of Longview’s trifecta of success, along with its location and its customer-focused strategies, it would be its specially trained and experienced labor, something non-West Coast companies might not consider or may write off.

"A lot of people have a preconceived notion about the West Coast, and I like to tell people that we have responsive labor services here," says Harris. "They focus on getting work done, and they take pride in doing a good job for our customers. I think once customers start working with us, they find out that because we’re a small breakbulk niche port, they have a more positive experience than they had anticipated."

By maximizing its potential and keeping a focus on new equipment and individual customers’ shipping needs, the Port of Longview looks to be a gateway into and out of the Pacific Northwest. It may be a complex job, but it’s a simple--and effective--approach. MM

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