Tim Maughan visits Freightplus in Osaka, Japan

By Tim Maughan06 September 2011

The double-deck Minato Bridge in Osaka spans 983 m

The double-deck Minato Bridge in Osaka spans 983 m

Freightplus moves heavy machinery around the world. Tim Maughan visited the teeming city of Osaka to see how this highly specialized freight forwarder brings trucks, cranes and ships together in Japan

It is a June morning in Osaka Port, and the word 'big' best describes everything visible here to the human eye. There is a low-loader, pulled by a Mitsubishi Fuso tractive unit. There is a rather compact but surprisingly heavy - 40 tonne - crusher component. A 100 tonne capacity crane stands ready. All this, under the Minato-Ohashi, or Minato Bridge: with a 983 metre span, the third largest cantilever truss bridge in the world.

Osaka Port is the one of the biggest docks in Japan. In turn, Osaka is the nucleus of the Kansai Region, Japan's manufacturing heartland, with an economy on a par with that of Australia. Everything here is on a grand scale, including Freightplus, the firm which has brought the crusher part, the crane, and the truck-trailer combination together.

Australia-based Freightplus is a freight forwarder which moves heavy and, says its website, "challenging and over dimensional cargoes". That means mining equipment, crushers and any other type of heavy industrial machinery. It is a global operation with offices in the United States, Germany, Australia, Thailand, and Japan.

International Cranes and Specialized Transport meets Akito Kinoshita, managing director of Freightplus' Japan operation, and Marco Andreoni, manager, technical, as they oversee an operation at Osaka Port. "I'm responsible for Australian quarantine inspections and looking after clients when they are in Japan," Andreoni says.

Freightplus needs to transfer the crusher from Osaka to Malaysia. It is a complex itinerary: truck to Osaka (a 550 km part of the trip not arranged by Freightplus), transfer to another truck operator at Osaka Port, delivery to Kobe, and then shipment to Malaysia. There is a lot of metal here but Kinoshita does not run a single truck or crane. Instead, Freightplus looks at the wider A to B picture. After the customer has asked for its consignment to be moved - and this could mean an intercontinental trip - Freightplus consults its technical database, which outlines the exact specifications of the heavy gear it can expect to carry. After poring over the information, personnel like Kinoshita and Andreoni then contact the subcontractors. As well as land transport and lifting gear, shipping also has to be arranged. Knowing the size, weight and the intricacies of a particular consignment, Freightplus can then tell the subcontractors exactly what hardware they need to get the job done.

On the quayside, Kinoshita and Andreoni watch as the Mitsubishi Fuso truck and low-loader twist into position, to take on the 40 tonne crusher component. The truck is operated by Wakita Unsou, or Wakita Transportation. The tractive unit weighs 11 tonnes and the unladen trailer 13 tonnes. With the truck in place, a team from stevedore and crane operator Marushin Koun KK prepares the modestly-sized, but disproportionately heavy, crusher part for the lift.

"Wakita Transportation is one of the subcontractors we use," says Kinoshita. "We have researched all of our subcontractors previously, so we know they have the right equipment for the task." He worked for this stevedore company before joining Freightplus five years ago. Kinoshita favours Mitsubishi trucks and Tadano cranes.

With the crusher part securely shackled, a 100 tonne capacity CCH 1000 lattice boom crawler crane from domestic manufacturer IHI smoothly lifts it into the air. The stevedores then secure the load onto the low-loader.

"In the big scope of things we do, this is not a big job for us. Two years ago, we moved a 270 tonne barge from Kobe to Adelaide," reports Kinoshita, pulling a photograph of that operation from his pocket. The unpowered barge was placed on a ship, and then taken to Australia.

Kinoshita and Andreoni then walk to another site, where the main piece of plant is the Nordberg H12-10-.5 crusher: a 34 tonne tracked monster. The stevedores, once again, swing into action, with scarcely a word spoken. Using a remote control unit, one of them guides the plant up a set of ramps, onto another Wakita Transportation low-loader.

With the 40 tonne component and 34 tonne crusher safely loaded, Kinoshita and Andreoni point out that there is more to this project. Freightplus has undertaken an entire mine move, where 83 machines, from the Philippines and Borneo, were sent to Uzbekistan. Customers want their machinery assembled at the right time and place, not delivered in pieces. The same applies here. As well as the main crusher, and its 40 tonne component, a third Wakita truck is transporting a three tonne hopper, and an 11 tonne container with all the smaller crusher parts.

Road regulations meant that the heavy gear had to come from Tokyo by night. Andreoni says: "It took two nights to make the trip from Tokyo to Osaka. Here, with heavy lifting, you cannot go in the day, you have to go by night."

He adds: "Tomorrow it will be shipped to Malaysia. This is a relatively short trip. But it can take 40 days to take machinery from Japan to Africa." Cashflow is guaranteed by the bill of lading, which means that the customer cannot take delivery of the machinery until Freightplus is paid.

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which struck the country in March, has affected Freightplus scheduling. High radiation in the Tokyo area, and restrictions from the capital's port, has led to the crusher being hauled the 550 km to Osaka, rather than sail directly from Tokyo.

Kinoshito had just three days notice to move the crusher from Osaka. After it had been dropped in the city's docks, he had to ensure that it was loaded onto the Wakita trucks, taken to Kobe (some 30 km distant) and then shipped to Malaysia. He has to contact all parties to ensure a seamless flow of traffic.

"In 2005 and 2006, Japan was one of the biggest secondhand machinery markets in the world," he explains. This market has dropped off slightly, he reports.

With the loading done, the Freightplus men stop for a traditional Japanese meal. Over rice and green tea, Andreoni points out the different ways of buying machinery, and how this dictates Freightplus' working methods. "There is ex-works, where we pick up from site, transport to docks, and arrange customs clearance, washing, and so on. We then put the machinery on a vessel, which may or may not have been arranged by ourselves.

"There is also FOB - free on board. Here, cargo is delivered to a wharf or bonded zone. We arrange to put the cargo on a vessel, and the shipper pays for all costs up to the vessel being loaded."

Kinoshita points out that the BOL, bill of lading, guarantees Freightplus gets its money, and quickly. "It means that cargo cannot be released until we receive payment. In this sense, it is quite safe."

The English language tends to be the international method of communication but, says Andreoni, it has serious limitations, even in modern Japan. He has been in the country for 20 years, and speaks Japanese fluently. That makes for the smooth coming together of subcontractors' cranes, trucks, trailers, and the ships which transfer the machinery overseas.

"Every country has a different way of working," he confirms. "In Japan, it takes a long time to get everything organised. After that, things move very quickly. But without Japanese, it would be very difficult."

BOX 1:

Truck rules and regulations in Japan

Masao Konishi, managing director of Nara, Kansai-based truck operator Asuka Unsou (Asuka Transportation), runs through the Japanese road transport laws.

Japanese truck drivers can drive a vehicle for a maximum of 12 hours a day. Every two and a half hours they must take a 30 minute rest. Abnormal loads begin at 20 tonnes. Above that weight threshold, transport firms must inform the Ministry of Land, and the police, about truck movements on highways, or motorways. The authorities must be told about abnormal or outsize truck routing, although, says Konishi, police do understand the complexity of transport operations, and time-sensitive drops, so they do afford a fair degree of flexibility.

Asuka Unsou fields 60 trucks, some 80% of which are likely to be on the road at any one time. He says, "Diesel was Yen 148 ($1.83) a litre a few years ago. Now, it's Yen 105 ($1.30) a litre."

And road tax? A 10 tonne truck attracts an annual tax fee of Yen 30,000 ($371). Over and above that, the tax increases by 10%, for every 500 kg in weight.

Marco Andreoni at Freightplus says that the maximum permitted height from the bottom of the trailer to the top of the load is 3.8 m. He adds, however, that this limit is often exceeded on Japanese roads.

Despite being roughly the size of California, Japan has the third largest economy in the world. It is famously cramped - 80% of the country is mountainous. This leads the population to live largely on the coastal plains, in cities like Osaka, Tokyo, and Yokohama. Decent long distance roads, which skirt round the mountains, mean smooth truck movements. The major centres of population, though, are a minefield of traffic lights and concrete.

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