Roll-on/roll-off vessel docking

RORO Vessels: Driving Cars Across The Ocean

YouTube does a pretty good job of making itself a target for criticism, but one thing you can say about their algorithms: when they work, they really work. Case in point, the other day I found a suggestion in my feed for a very recent video about salvaging a shipwreck. I can’t begin to guess what combination of view history and metadata Google mined to come to the conclusion that I’d be interested in this video, but they hit the nail on the head.

But more importantly, their algorithmic assessment of my interests must have been a goldmine to them — or it could have been if I didn’t have a minefield of ad blockers protecting me — because I fell down a rabbit hole that led me to a bunch of interesting videos. As it turns out, the shipwreck in that first video was of a cargo ship that was carrying thousands of brand-new automobiles, which were all destroyed in the fire and subsequent capsizing of a “roll-on/roll-off” (RORO) vessel off the coast of Georgia (the state, not the country) in 2019.

Thus began my journey into RORO vessels, on which automobiles and other bulky cargo are transported around the world. And while my personal assessment of the interests of Hackaday readers probably is not as finely tuned as Google’s algos, I figured there’s a better than decent chance that people might enjoy tagging along too.

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The World’s First Autonomous Electric Cargo Ship Is Due To Set Sail

Maritime shipping is big business, with gigantic container ships responsible for moving the vast majority of the world’s goods from point A to points B, C and D. Of course, there’s a significant environmental impact from all this activity, something ill befitting the cleaner, cooler world we hope the future will be. Thus, alternatives to the fossil fuel burning ships of old must be found. To that end, Norwegian company Yara International has developed a zero-emission ship by the name of Yara Birkeland, which aims to show the way forward into a world of electric, autonomous sea transport. 

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Hackaday Links: August 1, 2021

Amateur radio operators have a saying: When all else fails, there’s ham radio. And that’s true, at least to an extent — knock out the power, tear down the phone lines, and burn up all the satellites in orbit, and there will still be hams talking about politics on 40 meters. The point is, as long as the laws of physics don’t change, hams will figure out a way to send and receive messages. In honor of that fact, the police in the city of Pune in Maharashtra, India, make it a point to exchange messages with their headquarter using Morse code once a week. The idea is to maintain a backup system, in case they can’t get a message through any other way. It’s a good idea, especially since they rotate all their radio operators through the Sunday morning ritual. We can’t imagine that most emergency services dispatchers would be thrilled about learning Morse, though.

Just because you’re a billionaire with a space company doesn’t mean you’re an astronaut. At least that’s the view of the US Federal Aviation Administration, which issued guidelines pretty much while Jeff Bezos and his merry band of cohorts were floating about above the 100-km high Kármán line in a Blue Origin “New Shepard” rocket. The FAA guidelines make it clear that those making the trip need to have actually done something to qualify as an astronaut, by “demonstrated activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.” That’s good news to the “Old Shepard”, who clearly was in control of “Freedom 7” during the Mercury program. But the Bezos brothers, teenager Oliver Daemen, and Wally Funk, one of the “Mercury 13” group of women who trained to be NASA astronauts but never got to fly, were really just along for the ride, as the entire flight was automated. It doesn’t take away from the fact that they’ve been to space and you haven’t, of course, but they can’t officially call themselves astronauts. This goes to show that even billionaires can just be ballast too.

Good news, everyone — if you had anything that was being transported aboard the Ever Given, your stuff is almost there. The Suez Canal-occluding container ship finally made it to its original destination in Rotterdam, approximately four months later than originally predicted.  After plugging up the vital waterway for six days last March, the ship along with her cargo and her crew were detained in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake, perhaps the coolest sounding body of water in the world next to the Dead Sea. Legal squabbling ensued at that point, all the while rendering whatever was in the 20,000-odd containers aboard the ship pretty much pointless. We’d imagine that even with continuous power, whatever was in the refrigerated containers must be pretty nasty by now, so there’s probably a lot of logistics and clean-up left to sort out.

I have to admit that I have a weird love of explosive bolts. I don’t know what it is, but the idea of fasteners engineered to fail in a predictable way under the influence of pyrotechnic charges just tickles something in me. I mean, I even wrote a whole article on the subject once. So when I came across this video explaining how the Space Shuttles were held to the launch pad, I really had to watch it. Surprisingly, the most interesting part of this story was not the explosive aspect, but the engineering problem of supporting the massive vehicle on the launch pad. For as graceful as the Shuttles seemed once they got into orbit, they really were ungainly beasts, especially strapped to the external fuel tank and booster. The scale of the eight frangible nuts used to secure the boosters to the pad is just jaw-dropping. We also liked the idea that NASA decided to catch the debris from the explosions in a container filled with sand.

Field Guide To Shipping Containers

In the 1950s, trucking magnate Malcom McLean changed the world when he got frustrated enough with the speed of trucking and traffic to start a commercial shipping company in order to move goods up and down the eastern seaboard a little faster. Within ten years, containers were standardized, and the first international container ship set sail in 1966. The cargo? Whisky for the U.S. and guns for Europe. What was once a slow and unreliable method of moving all kinds of whatever in barrels, bags, and boxes became a streamlined operation — one that now moves millions of identical containers full of unfathomable miscellany each year.

When I started writing this, there was a container ship stuck in the Suez canal that had been blocking it for days. Just like that, a vital passage became completely clogged, halting the shipping schedule of everything from oil and weapons to ESP8266 boards and high-waist jeans. The incident really highlights the fragility of the whole intermodal system and makes us wonder if anything will change.

A rainbow of dry storage containers. Image via xChange

Setting the Standard

We are all used to seeing the standard shipping container that’s either a 10′, 20′, or 40′ long box made of steel or aluminum with doors on one end. These are by far the most common type, and are probably what come to mind whenever shipping containers are mentioned.

These are called dry storage containers, and per ISO container standards, they are all 8′ wide and 8′ 6″ tall. There are also ‘high cube’ containers that are a foot taller, but otherwise share the same dimensions. Many of these containers end up as some type of housing, either as stylish studios, post-disaster survivalist shelters, or construction site offices. As the pandemic wears on, they have become so much in demand that prices have surged in the last few months.

Although Malcom McLean did not invent container shipping, the strict containerization standards that followed in his wake prevent issues during stacking, shipping, and storing, and allow any container to be handled safely at any port in the world, or load onto any rail car with ease. Every bit of the container is standardized, from the dimensions to the way the container’s information is displayed on the end. At most, the difference between any two otherwise identical containers is the number, the paint job, and maybe a few millimeters in one dimension.

Standard as they may be, these containers don’t work for every type of cargo. There are quite a few more types of shipping containers out there that serve different needs. Let’s take a look at some of them, shall we?

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A Big Ship Chop Shop On The Georgia Coast

Last week we saw a hapless container ship vaulted to fame, where people converged on its combination of mind-boggling size suffering an easily relatable problem of getting stuck. Now that it is moving again, armchair engineers who crave more big ship problem-solving should check out [David Tracy]’s writeup on the salvage operation of an overturned car carrier ship, the MV Golden Ray published by Jalopnik. If the ship’s name doesn’t ring a bell, the writeup opens with a quick recap.

Written for an audience of gearheads, [Tracy]’s writeup walks through some technical aspects of the salvage plan and initial results of execution. Citing from the official entity in charge, the St. Simons Sound Incident Response Unified Command, and augmented with information from elsewhere. Even though the MV Golden Ray is “only’ half the length and a third of the gross tonnage of our meme darling MV Ever Given, it is still a huge ship. Every salvage operation this big is unique, requiring knowledge far beyond our everyday intuition. At this scale, most Internet “Why don’t they just…” comments range from impractical to absurd.

Fortunately, people who actually know how to perform salvage work designed plans, submitted by multiple bidders, each making a different tradeoff in cost and speed among other factors. The chosen plan was to cut the ship into sections small enough to be carried by barge for further processing elsewhere. This required a huge floating crane, a chain pressed into cutter duty, custom fabricated lugs for lifting, and similarly custom fabricated cradles for the barges.

But we all know that no plan survives contact with reality. While this plan was seemingly chosen for speed, it hasn’t gone nearly as fast as advertised. Certainly the pandemic was a huge hinderance, but cutting has also been slowed by pieces built far stronger than spec. Delays also meant more sediment buildup inside the wreck, compounding headaches. Other bidders have started saying that if their plan had been chosen the job would be done by now, but who’s to say their plan wouldn’t have encountered their own problems?

In time St. Simons Sound will be cleared as the Suez Canal has been. Results of their respective investigations should help make shipping safer, but salvage skills will still be needed in the future. At least this operation isn’t as controversial as trying to retrieve the radio room of RMS Titanic.

JIT Vs. AM: Is Additive Manufacturing The Cure To Fragile Supply Chains?

As fascinating and frustrating as it was to watch the recent Suez canal debacle, we did so knowing that the fallout from it and the analysis of its impact would be far more interesting. Which is why this piece on the potential of additive manufacturing to mitigate supply chain risks caught our eye.

We have to admit that a first glance at the article, by [Davide Sher], tripped our nonsense detector pretty hard. After all, the piece appeared in 3D Printing Media Network, a trade publication that has a vested interest in boosting the additive manufacturing (AM) industry. We were also pretty convinced going in that, while 3D-printing is innovative and powerful, even using industrial printers it wouldn’t be able to scale up enough for print parts in the volumes needed for modern consumer products. How long would it take for even a factory full of 3D-printers to fill a container with parts that can be injection molded in their millions in China?

But as we read on, a lot of what [Davide] says makes sense. A container full of parts that doesn’t arrive exactly when they’re needed may as well never have been made, while parts that are either made on the factory floor using AM methods, or produced locally using a contract AM provider, could be worth their weight in gold. And he aptly points out the differences between this vision of on-demand manufacturing and today’s default of just-in-time manufacturing, which is extremely dependent on supply lines that we now know can be extremely fragile.

So, color us convinced, or at least persuaded. It will certainly be a while before all the economic fallout of the Suez blockage settles, and it’ll probably longer before we actually see changes meant to address the problems it revealed. But we would be surprised if this isn’t seen as an opportunity to retool some processes that have become so optimized that a gust of wind could take them down.

Traffic Jam In The Suez Canal; Container Ship Run Aground

A vital shipping lane has been blocked in Egypt, as a 220,000 ton container ship, the MV Ever Given, became lodged sideways in the channel Tuesday morning local time. The Suez Canal, long a region of trading and strategic importance, has been blocked to travel in both directions as authorities make frantic efforts to free the ship.

Live tracking shows a flurry of activity around the stricken vessel. If you find yourself transiting the Suez Canal next week, don’t do this. Everyone’s patience is going to be pretty thin.

The Ever Given is carrying goods from China to Rotterdam, making a northward journey through the canal. The exact reason for grounding remains unclear, though such incidents are often due to mechanical malfunction or navigational errors in the tight confines of the channel. Like many important waterways, the Suez Canal requires transiting vessels to take on a pilot. This is to ensure that ships passing through the canal have someone onboard with experience of navigating the 673-foot wide passage. However, incidents still happen, as with huge container ships, there is minimal room for error.

A flotilla of tugboats dispatched to the area have begun working to free the ship, working in concert with excavators on the banks of the canal. This photo taken by [Julianne Cona] at the incident shows the sheer scale of the problem — with the excavator digging at the bow a tiny speck in the shadow of the gigantic ship.

We’re sure shipping firms and residents of the Netherlands are eager for a quick resolution, whether its to avoid costly delays or simply to get those online purchases sooner. If you live near the canal and want to keep an eye on what’s happening, you could always grab a software-defined radio and track things in real time. Alternatively, watch the progress on Vessel Finder. And, if you’ve got strong opinions on the proper procedure for navigating the Suez Canal, sound off in the comments!