The equipment whisperer

Alex Meyer makes sure that the handling equipment at HHLA Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA) is able to cope with the constant load.

24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 360 days a year. The Port of Hamburg never sleeps. Loads are loaded, discharged, stored and moved day and night at the Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA) terminals. While employees cover a rotating three-shift system at the quay facilities, there is no break for the handling equipment. Container gantry cranes, portal cranes, straddle carriers and AGVs (automated guided vehicles): all this heavy machinery at CTA ensures that global transport chains are not disrupted, that the German export economy can keep supplying its products to the world, and that goods flow smoothly to the whole of Europe. If the machines are down, even just for a short time, the system starts to falter.

People like Alex Meyer ensure that the handling equipment at CTA, one of the most high-tech container terminals in the world, is up to this unrelenting task. He is a repairman at the Service Center Altenwerder (SCA). This HHLA subsidiary ensures that the technology deployed at the site is available around the clock. The qualified electronics engineer sits at his desk and observes the monitors. They show incoming faults for every individual container gantry crane, portal crane and AGV. Alex points to a red notice: “It’s nothing too exciting, just defective air conditioning in a bridge cockpit.” It has to be dealt with, but doesn’t directly impact operations. It’s a different story when the CTA control station, which controls all operations at the terminal, radios through. “Then it’s usually all hands on deck,” for example, when one of the approximately 100 AGVs isn’t working properly. Then Alex grabs his tool kit and tablet and heads for the transporter field where AGVs move as if by magic. The repair crew usually work in teams of two. The repairs department employs 45 people and they work in three shifts closely together with the specialised equipment teams and the maintenance service. You could say that Alex and his colleagues are the first responders at CTA.

“Usually you have an idea what the problem might be, but you can never know exactly what the day will bring. Everyone in the team has seen at least one case of something completely unique that’s never happened before,” the equipment whisperer says. Creativity and a certain ability to improvise are helpful traits in members of a repair crew. That’s because their priority is to find a fast solution even if it isn’t the perfect solution.

At the beginning this pressure was hard to cope with, but the 25-year-old has been with the repair crew for eighteen months now and was just promoted to deputy foreman in May. “When you know that it is your responsibility to get the container gantry crane working again so that the last containers can be loaded and the ship can hit its tide window on schedule it can make you pretty nervous.” Now he’s more relaxed. “I don't think about it and focus on the task at hand,” he says, looking like an old hand.

He thinks it’s cool working with such massive machines, particularly the container gantry cranes. “They’re not something you see everyday,” Alex grins. Big toys for big boys? No, he’s well aware of where he is working. An accident here can have serious consequences. “We all look after one another here. Work safety is taken very seriously.”

Three o’clock means the early shift is almost over for Alex. He’ll be heading home to Seevetal, south of Hamburg. But the machines will keep working, they don't get to clock off. They’ll be watched over by other repair personnel, who will make sure that everything continues to run smoothly at CTA. Because the Port of Hamburg never sleeps.