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Problem solved in spirit of co-operation

Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited, known throughout the city as Hactl, describes itself as "the world's leading international air cargo terminal operator".

The claim of world domination may seem exaggerated for a company with only one operation, at its home base at Hong Kong International Airport.

Yet it is fully justified. In terms of volumes, values, efficiency and virtually anything else that can be measured in air cargo terminal operations, Hactl is world No1.

What makes the Hactl success story all the more remarkable is that the results - some 3.5 million tonnes of cargo processed annually - have been achieved using an automated system designed for a maximum handling capacity of only 2.6 million annually, and which spent its first few years looking as if it was going to struggle to achieve that.

Hactl is an engineer's paradise. The fully-automated cargo handling system (CHS) is a massive, barely comprehensible miracle at the crossroads of operational management, software design and mechanical and industrial engineering.

Kenneth Chan, general manager for engineering at Hactl, entered the company as an apprentice at Hong Kong's former Kai Tak airport.

He remembers a time when the CHS was less a modern-day marvel and more like a jerry-built contraption. Chan recalls the teething troubles that for a time threatened the company's operational integrity and reputation.

"It's a complex, inter-connected and interdependent network of stacker cranes, aisles and around 3,000 pieces of handling equipment," he says. "To handle 10,000 tonnes in one day, we have to carry out some 16,000 cargo order movements, so downtime on the system at any level could be critical."

Problems with stressed machine parts, unexpected component failure and, inevitably, the physical traffic jams resulting from them had the power to cause havoc for a business whose very existence was based on speed of response.

And, since the manufacturers themselves could offer little by way of assistance except ad hoc replacement which did nothing to resolve the underlying problems, Chan's group and the two other teams involved in running the system - IT and operations - took on the challenge themselves.

"What made success possible was that three teams of specialists with very different disciplines and points of view - mechanical engineers, IT specialists and the operators - had to work together and start to look at the solution from a total system perspective," he says. 

The outcome was the introduction of remote monitoring systems, early-warning preventive maintenance and strategic adjustments to the system and the way they managed it.

Ultimately, they were able to make what was effectively a new maintenance methodology their routine, naming it "proactive maintenance" due to its emphasis on monitoring and prediction principles.

For Hactl, the result has been increased availability of the system - now 100 per cent - greater flexibility in planned stoppage and maintenance actions, extended time between maintenance overhauls, and reduced life-cycle costs.

In other words, they now handle a vastly greater volume of cargo and freight movements more efficiently, and have saved a large amount of money from their capital expenditure at the same time.

Two statistics suffice to illustrate the impact on Hactl's operations and customer satisfaction ratings.

In 2001, when the preventive maintenance initiative started, the average downtime for a system outage was 20 minutes. This year, it is six minutes.

Peak daily tonnage in 2001 was 6,300 tonnes, which required 8,000 order movements. This year, the volume is 10,100 tonnes, at a cost of 16,000 order movements.

Performing a higher ratio of movements to orders might seem inefficient, but is one of the elements of which Chan is most proud.

"Because there is so much more cargo, and because we have increased the demand on the system, at peak times we need to move the containers in more frequent, yet shorter bursts," he says.

"So, although we're putting more stress on the machinery, we have far better reliability, too, because of the proactive maintenance and system improvements."