Investment in the Port of Sunderland’s cargo handling facilities is already proving fruitful as leading crane manufacturer, Liebherr, can testify.
Liebherr, which has been manufacturing cranes on the banks of the River Wear since 1989, now regularly export cranes from the Port of Sunderland across the globe.
The latest shipment was a large mobile crane destined for Chittagong in Bangladesh following on from exports to India, Bulgaria and Germany earlier in the year.
The close proximity of Liebherr Sunderland Works to the port allows it to maximise the advantages of the deep-water river berths.
Ralph Saelzer, managing director of Liebherr Sunderland, told The Manufacturer: “It is very convenient for us that our facility at the mouth of River Wear is so close to Port of Sunderland.
“The proximity to the port cuts down major transport ways for us. We don’t have to use road transport, so we can ship the cranes directly to Port of Sunderland. From there, we can ship our cranes to customers around the world.
He added: “The Port of Sunderland provides us with the right ship vessels which enable us to load a crane in a fully erected position in one piece. This saves a lot of money for our customers. It also has a bespoke infrastructure, and the services on site are very flexible.”
In the late-1980s, the Swiss-headquartered Liebherr took over a former shipyard and transformed it into a production facility.
The main advantage a medium-sized harbour like Port Sunderland over major European port like Rotterdam is the flexibility is provided, according to Saelzer.
“When you want to make things happen in one of the major European ports like Rotterdam or Antwerp, you need to make your calls, contact people in the relevant departments and speak your way through. Whereas here in Sunderland, you make one call and things get under way.”
Shift of the core business
The site in Sunderland belongs to the Liebherr Group’s maritime division – which consists of four factories, Rostock (Germany), Nenzing (Austria), Killarney (Ireland) and Sunderland.
Saelzer described the changes the business has undergone: “In the past, we have almost exclusively manufactured cranes for ships and offshore cranes for oil rigs.
“After the recent downturn, the oil & gas business is still in a recovery process; it’s still not as strong as it was several years ago. While demand for ship cranes has decreased due to the downturn of the shipbuilding industry, we’ve had to focus on our other products like container handling equipment for ports, and now we are manufacturing mainly Reachstackers and harbour mobile cranes.”
Saelzer explained that the approach is currently focused on moving away from a project-related production philosophy to a more a serial production line.
“Our aim is to manufacture and sell more of our new Reachstakers models, which means that we need to invest in skills, reframe our personnel, adapt a leaner management thinking attitude and invest in technical equipment as well.”
Liebherr is a traditional family-owned business, and therefore in a fortunate position in terms of capital investment, Saelzer explained: “We can rely on and operate with long-term business strategies because the capital of Liebherr Group is giving us a certain financial leeway.
However, the big challenge Liebherr Sunderland faces is a skills gap: “Unfortunately, the labour market does not provide us with the sufficient number of people we require – we need more welders, fitters, platers, electricians than the labour market offers.”
Saelzer said, that Liebherr is constantly upskilling its existing workforce when necessary and the company invests in a very strong apprenticeship scheme to satisfy its labour demand.
“In terms of technology, we need to invest. If you’re not keeping up with the times, you’ll be out of business; therefore, we are constantly looking into new options either regarding ERP systems or software in general,” he noted.
Saelzer added that the Port of Sunderland’s sustained investment programme is really starting to “bear fruit” both from a business and city perspective, and Liebherr is already beginning to “reap the benefits”.
On the up
The fast-growing Port of Sunderland reported a 13% uplift in tonnage passing over its quays last year compared to 2016, with total cargo throughput figures now standing at well over 800,000 tonnes.
Looking forward, work is set to commence on the nearby 150-hectare International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP) – a development the port expects to help it surpass the one million tonne milestone.
In the words of Port of Sunderland director, Matthew Hunt: “Sunderland is a city on the up. The IAMP has the potential to be one of the region’s largest infrastructure projects and will provide a huge boost to not only the port, but the regional economy as a whole.”