Global shipping and logistics can be a complicated puzzle. With a wide array of options available to piece together the perfect logistics mix, many shippers look to a third-party logistics company (3PL) to help. An often oversimplified and underestimated option is roll-on/roll-off carriers (Ro/Ro), which can offer a customized, safe and secure option for shippers to move freight around the world.
For any shipper interested in a Ro/Ro carrier solution, there are many elements to finding the right carrier for the job. Consider this hypothetical: A large crane company needs to transport its specialized ship-building cranes—which can be as large as 4,000 cubic meters—from a U.S. East Coast port to South Korea. There are many parts and pieces to the crane, but the main component is the self-propelled carrier, which is over-dimensional, heavy and high value. This type of freight movement requires a highly specialized and meticulously vetted solution; if planned appropriately, a Ro/Ro carrier could accommodate the movement.
Working with an experienced 3PL can be a good option in making a complex series of decisions easier. The following are five things I counsel my clients to consider when working with Ro/Ro carriers.
KNOW YOUR FREIGHT
Oftentimes, a shipper’s freight has many different types of cargo—some rolling, some static—or over-dimensional breakbulk cargo. In the above crane example, for instance, numerous loose parts and components accompany the main self-propelled unit. The main crane operating cabin and carrier are considered “rolling.” Other pieces, such as the boom, counter weights and accessories, are “static.” Therefore it’s important to ensure a carrier has sufficient equipment such as Mafi trailers to properly load, block and secure any static and breakbulk cargo. Otherwise, the carrier needs to present a method statement of how they will properly handle the static cargo both at load and unloading ports.
Roll-on/roll-off carriers refer to a highly specialized vessel that primarily carries rolling cargo. Freight can be self-propelled, such as a car, a truck, forklifts, trailers or cranes, or towed on like flatbed trailers or rolling pallets, but never lifted on. Ro/Ro carriers can be a very safe method of handling cargo. In most cases, cargo is stowed under deck, protecting it from the elements—seawater, wind and heat—which can be crucial to high-value cargo.
A challenge with Ro/Ro carriers is most of them do not keep and maintain a fleet of “liner” containers. Therefore, static cargo may require additional protective packing, or shippers may consider purchasing shipper-owned containers to properly protect and stow their cargo. If not planned properly, this can add to unforeseen expenditures. Once appropriately export packed and/or containerized, Ro/Ro carriers often stow the cargo on Mafi trailers—large 40- to 60-foot platforms where static cargo can be loaded, secured and towed onto the vessel. Shippers shouldn’t assume that a carrier has adequate Mafi trailer capacity at port for a given shipment—its best to confirm with your carrier well in advance to assure enough time to secure the right equipment. Special equipment needs add complexity to working with a Ro/Ro carrier. Most can be easily navigated with the right amount of time, coordination and attention to detail.
KNOW YOUR CARRIER
It’s important to have a full understanding of a carrier vessel’s capabilities. Size and weight of freight do matter. Early on, ask yourself a series of questions. Can the ramp of the vessel sustain the weight of the cargo? All Ro/Ro vessels have loading ramp weight limitations. If you are shipping project cargo that weighs 100 tons and the ramp can only sustain 80 tons, then this vessel is not a candidate for your cargo irrespective of port calls and vessel schedules. The same limitations apply to dimensions and schematics. The cargo may be too tall or wide to enter the door opening of the vessel. Once you’re inside the vessel, do the doors and interior spaces accommodate your specific cargo’s dimensions? Think beyond fitting through the door. If your cargo is over-dimensional, consider whether it can fit inside the vessel, from bow to stern. Is there adequate turning radius to avoid problems during the un-loading process? For shippers handling static cargo loaded onto Mafi trailers, is there adequate crane capacity at your destination port to unload your freight? These are all questions that should be answered thoroughly prior to committing to your shipping method. If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” go back to the drawing board with your carrier and logistics partner.
KNOW YOUR ROUTE
Equally as important as the carrier’s vessel specifications is the route on which it travels. It’s a more complicated question than where you’re going and where you’re coming from. The right question is, “Will my freight go direct or be transshipped?” The answer can have significant impacts to your freight timetable, spend, care and handling. Direct routes offer more predictability in the handling and cost of the freight. When freight is transshipped, it’s transferred from one vessel to another at a different port mid-journey at which point shippers can temporarily or completely lose visibility of their freight. If your shipment is not planned properly, you are at risk of prolonged delays at the transshipment point(s) and increase the risk of damage to the cargo. The solution is to mitigate risk by building up your delivery schedule to account for potential delays and work with a trusted agent to supervise the operation at the transshipping point and have “boots on the ground” to ensure proper care and handling of your cargo.
KNOW YOUR SCHEDULE AND MILESTONES
Roll-on/roll-off carriers have fixed, reliable schedules, often anchored in the schedules and trading routes of large-scale contracts with major car manufacturers. Sail dates are, for the most part, set in stone. For those working with long-lead, rigid timelines, this can be an asset. On the other hand, shippers requiring a certain level of flexibility could see this as a pitfall.
When shipping internationally, shippers should also keep in mind export clearance and trade requirements. When shipping rolling stock, U.S. Customs requires self-propelled rolling stock to be cleared within 72 hours. Have your export documents and clearances in line and timed to match the vessel’s schedule—or you’ll risk missing your sail date. Not planning for export clearances can result in gross delays up to 30 days if your nominated carrier’s frequency of sailing is once a month.
When planning a timeline, generally speaking, the longer the lead-time, the better. In the project logistics world, we’re accustomed to lead times, with feasibility studies sometimes taking place two years in advance of any freight move.
STRONG CARRIER/SHIPPER COMMUNICATION IS KEY
As you build your relationship with a selected Ro/Ro carrier, strong and open communication is key. In many cases, service contracts help reinforce strong carrier relationships and mitigate possible surprises, such as shipments being bumped or delayed due to capacity. Service contracts can help shippers navigate key questions with their carriers. Through our continuous work with carriers around the world, we find Ro/Ro carriers are an important part of the carrier mix. Costs, deadlines and milestones drive decisions, with many considerations from point A to B.
Bottom line: Careful coordination and communication are imperative to a successful, designed solution.
Frank Guzman is director of Global Business Development for Project Logistics at C.H. Robinson Worldwide.