Wind turbines seem to shoot out of the ground like mushrooms. However, construction of a new one involves an impressive logistical operation. Antwerp Rollit Cargo has made a speciality of taking delivery of such consignments.
The company carries out these activities in Antwerp and Zeebrugge (onshore) and Ostend (offshore). Senior account manager Petra Seidel has been leading the wind turbine operations for more than 12 years now. "The wind turbine activities are my baby," she says enthusiastically.
Unshipping, handling and transporting the various turbine parts involve a whole lot of specialist operations. "In practice we are responsible for unloading and loading the seagoing ships, barges and trucks. We can also offer storage in collaboration with BNFW Sea Invest where we have an experienced, dedicated crew. We aim to provide this personal service. In the past we have also worked with various quays on the Left Bank. Our present location on the Right Bank has the advantage of easy access to the motorway."
This is an absolute necessity, given that a wind turbine blade can easily be 60 metres long, and they are getting steadily bigger: 80 m and counting. Rollit Cargo recently handled a set of 74-m blades that couldn't even fit on a trailer at maximum extension. The truck and trailer together easily make up a transporter with a length of nearly 80 m.
Rollit Cargo is the dedicated agent in Belgium for various wind turbine builders. Trust like this is only built up through close involvement and keeping up with technical developments. "Our customers know that we have years of experience and that we tackle many aspects beforehand. Furthermore we offer personalised service. We can also fit the blades into other frames and turn them for transport, either by road or by barge." Rollit Cargo handles at least 100 wind turbines per year, and so a minimum of 300 blades.
Turbine blades are delicate cargo. They are made of plastic or fibreglass and are easily damaged if they touch something during transport. The nacelle which houses the generator is also vulnerable to incorrect manipulation. Furthermore the blades come in sets of three and are not interchangeable, as they are calibrated. Usually however they are well protected during transport by sea thanks to the use of frames.
Given all this, was it a particularly tense moment when the company handled one of these turbines for the first time? "Our speciality is handling, transporting and storing project cargo under the motto 'The bigger and heavier the better'", says Seidel with a laugh. "So we have plenty of expertise in outsize loads. In the past I worked in the agency world – always in breakbulk – while co-owner Arthur Mahieu comes from the crane world and brings his own specialist know-how. Another colleague comes from the forwarding world and is also specialised in breakbulk. We don't offer forwarding activities ourselves, but our customers are frequently forwarders."
"It's obvious that the environment and eco-friendly energy are big business these days. When we handle project loads I like to know how they work and what they're used for. It's the same with the jobs that we do for e.g. the mining industry. Such cargoes always appeal to the imagination. We're a little spoiled in the sense that it has become almost routine for us."
Does the company also use multimodal transport? "Most of the wind turbine consignments are sent by road, although in the past we have also send loads from Antwerp to the Netherlands by barge. Barge transport can be a solution, but direct road transport from Antwerp is usually more attractive economically for customers in this sector."
The people at Rollit Cargo are all too well aware that breakbulk in Antwerp has not had a good year. But Seidel is not wholly pessimistic: "The figures have been going down for a few years now, actually. There is less transhipment in Antwerp because materials are sent directly. Then there is the competition from neighbouring countries, and the Major Employment Act sometimes puts obstacles in our way. In certain circumstances our cost structure is too high, although our productivity is also high. Antwerp is still a breakbulk port. A lot of breakbulk also goes by container, as can be seen from the fact that we handle many heavy loads that arrive at and depart from the Antwerp container terminals. While the steel trade is very sensitive to geopolitical tensions, our specialism in project cargo makes our situation different. On the other hand such projects are not very numerous, so we have to be alert to opportunities. Everyone wants to get their hands on these projects. The days are long gone when project cargo was to be had for the asking."
But when it comes to shipping enthusiasm, there is no such shortage for Seidel. "After college I went straight into the shipping world. My parents also worked in that area, so I was thrown in at the deep end. I learned on the job, on board ship and on the quayside, and I still do. Technology is constantly advancing, and the people who do the physical handling also like to find out about the machines they are dealing with. You have to cultivate this loyalty and build it up."
Where does she see Rollit Cargo in five years time? "The intention for the future is to remain specialised in what we do. Depending on how the market develops we want to participate in the growth. If this means we have to invest then we won't neglect to do that."
These are the other articles in the dossier ‘Breakbulk’:
Breakbulk revival in Antwerp: preface to all the stories
Catrien Scheers: “Covid-19 will never undermine my faith in breakbulk”
Zimmer Staal operating at full capacity at terminal operator Euroports
Victrol carries bridges, machines and parts for offshore wind farms
Corona crisis confirms need for digital breakbulk platform
Biggest lifting job in Port of Antwerp in many years by Mammoet
Muriel Marquet (HSL): “Breakbulk is our core business”
Rail&Sea: "Big increase in combined breakbulk and container"
CJ-ICM Logistics: “We do the craziest things”
Wallenius Wilhelmsen Solutions invests in resources for breakbulk
Oldest port company Stukwerkers sees the sector changing rapidly
Van der Vlist Belgium expands its European hub at Zeebrugge
Jacques Vandermeiren: “Antwerp and breakbulk, a hole-in-one”