Niche of niches
Langh develops specialized container for the steel industry.
By Chris Dupin
The success of containerization and intermodalism is based on the fact that there are millions of identical shipping containers which can be easily shared by shippers and carriers anywhere and hold a wide variety of cargo.
But specialized containers can also be extremely useful—be they relatively common gear such as open-tops and flat racks for carrying oversize cargo, refrigerated boxes for produce and other temperature-sensitive goods, tank containers for carrying liquids or even much more specialized equipment.
Langh Ship Cargo Solutions, based in Piikkiö, Finland, about 90 miles west of Helsinki, has developed a variety of containers aimed at meeting the needs of the steel industry.
In November, Langh unveiled a new 40-foot container that’s capable of carrying a payload of 100 metric tons or 100,000 kilos — triple the weight transported by standard boxes.
Langh said the container will allow large steel coils to be loaded at the steel mill, transported on a heavy truck to the harbor, and then lifted onboard the vessel in one go.
Laura Langh-Lagerlöf, commercial manager, said the container was built more for future markets than those that exist today. For one thing, she noted few container cranes today are capable of lifting such heavy loads.
Langh built the container for Outokumpu, an Espoo, Finland-based company with which Langh has been working with for many years.
It’s just the latest in a line of specialized containers that the company builds and leases to Outokumpu and other steel companies. The firm has a fleet of about 1,000 TEUs of special containers for carrying products such as steel coils and plate.
Langh Ship Cargo Solutions is one of several companies founded by Hans Langh, 63, who is managing director and owns the company with his daughters Laura and Linda, who is corporate lawyer and managing director of the company’s industrial cleaning business.
That cleaning business was Langh’s route into the shipping business, though Laura mentioned another important influence — Hans’ grandfather, Carl Mattsson, a shipowner whose firm had gone out of business in the 1950s.
When his grandfather fell ill, Hans assumed responsibility for the family farm at age 15, and began managing a grain drying facility that he had helped his grandfather build. To use the drying facility to its maximum capacity, the firm would dry grain that had gotten wet during shipping and could be used for feed.
In the early 1970s, Hans founded a business that uses high-pressure heated water and cleaning chemicals to perform industrial cleaning. While most of the work the firm does is for shore-based businesses, Laura said it’s sometimes employed to clean cargo tanks, hulls after groundings, or engine rooms after fires.
After cleaning one ship, a client invited Hans to become a part-owner of a ship in 1980.
In 1983, Hans himself entered the shipping business, buying a 3,100-deadweight-ton mini-bulker. The company carried logs and paper products. Three new vessels of 4,400 deadweight tons were added in 1989 and a 4,500-deadweight-ton ship joined the fleet in 1991.
Using his knowledge from the cleaning business, Hans equipped them with special cleaning systems so that holds could be cleaned quickly after carrying dirty cargo such as coke, coal, kaolin and salt with hot water, even at temperatures below freezing.
“Thanks to the system, it is possible for a ship carrying raw-material cargo to be unloaded in the evening and have its hold cleaned and dried, ready to receive new, highly processed cargo the very next morning. With air-drying equipment, the hold can be kept dry even during travel time. Nowadays the same system is used on all vessels in the Langh Ship fleet,” the company said.
The company has gradually ramped up the size of vessels it now owns — Langh Ship has five multipurpose containerships, three with capacities of 6,500 deadweight tons and two with capacities of 11,500 deadweight tons. These ships operate with Finnish officers and crew.
Today, the company mainly concentrates on hauling steel, though it also handles small amounts of paper and timber in containers.
Laura said the company’s fleet mostly operates on long-term contracts, encompassing the Baltic between ports in northern Finland, Sweden and St. Petersburg, Russia, where the vessel’s 1A Super ice class ratings have an advantage. But the company’s ships also travel to ports along the English Channel and have even made voyages to the Mediterranean and North America.
When steel coils are carried on bulkers and concentrated at the bottom of holds, ships become “over stable” and their movements at sea become violent.
“My father and other employees in the company thought about how to solve the problem, and a way to do this was to move cargo in the hold up. But there had been severe accidents when steel was carried on the top ‘tween deck,” she explained.
So the company invented both special tweendecks to handle steel coils and removable cradle cassettes placed on regular tweendecks so that steel shipments can be secured with straps.
By placing cargo on tweendecks securely, carriers can reduce the heeling angle of their ships in rough seas and increase the rolling period, allowing them to operate more safely and crews to be more comfortable.
Since inventing the system about 12 years ago, the company has licensed its decks and cradles to other shipowners as well.
That invention led the company to create specialized containers so steel can also be carried on the weather decks of vessels.
These include containers that have cradles for handling coils of steel, as well as special containers that can be used to carry plate or bulk cargo such as scrap and ferrochrome.
Langh owns the containers and leases them to both steel companies and other shipping firms — smaller shipowners generally, not the giants of the container industry like Maersk and CMA CGM, Laura said.
The cradles can help reduce damage and the amount of dunnage needed to secure heavy cargoes such as steel coils. On backhauls, some of Langh’s customers use these containers to haul raw materials such as stainless steel scrap and ore.
The main clients for these specialized containers are Finnish steel mills such as Outokumpu, though they have also been used on Canadian railroads and in South Korea for intra-Asia shipments.
With about 150 employees, Langh looks to continue introducing new products, and is even considering building new ships.
“We are thinking this would be an interesting time now the shipyards do not have much employment and the prices are at a reasonable level,” Laura said.
The company’s current vessels were all built at the J.J. Sietas yard in Hamburg, Germany, but she said new vessels would probably be built in China.
Despite the weak European economy and depressed freight rates in the general bulk shipping market, she said the outlook for Langh’s businesses is brighter because it occupies a much smaller specialized niche.