Driving over the Bay Bridge on his way to work about four years ago, Luis Elizondo routinely found himself thinking about the large ships he saw waiting in long queues on their way to Baltimore to unload their cargo. Elizondo figured the waiting that crews endure at ports around the world must be wasteful and costly.
So he put his analytical mind to work. Researching the shipping and cargo industry, he and his partner, John Robert, came up with a new way for ships to move cargo around the world. They looked to the rail and trucking industries as a model, where train engines and trucks are decoupled from the cargo they haul. The same could be done for the shipping industry, Elizondo says.
Elizondo, 37, and Robert, 35, formed a company called Never Ship Empty Inc., which they cultivate when they're not working as employees at the Department of Defense. This year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Elizondo a patent for his ideas, which involve a huge crane to transfer a ship's superstructure, including the wheelhouse, from one hull to another.
The vast majority of imports and exports in the U.S. enter and leave the country by ship, Elizondo said. "We decided to look at other industries that deal with large amounts of cargo and how they do business. Looking superficially at the trucking industry and rail industry, we realized they're more efficient because this is how they do business. We were wondering, 'Why can't a ship do that?' "
Whether Elizondo and Robert's ideas will gain any traction in the international world of shipping remains to be seen. The technology behind cargo shipping hasn't changed much for decades. Containerships have gotten bigger, but some ports are no longer deep enough to accommodate them. That has led to the inefficient practice of large ships transferring some of their cargo to smaller ships that can traverse shallower channels to dock in ports.
About 30 percent of the 95,000 ships that come to U.S. ports annually are constrained by inadequate channel depths, according to statistics from the American Association of Port Authorities, which leads the country's ports to spend billions of dollars on periodic dredging projects.
Elizondo says that with the Never Ship Empty approach, companies can use smaller vessels on more frequent trips, as opposed to larger vessels that would take few trips and be forced to off-load some of their cargo away from the dock. The hulls can remain in port for longshoremen to unload over the course of a day or two, while the ship's wheelhouse and crew can be transferred to a different, pre-loaded hull that's ready to leave port the same day, according to Elizondo. The hulls would become the responsibility of the ports.
Elizondo hasn't pitched the Never Ship Empty idea yet to ports, but he plans on talking first with the port of Baltimore.
Port spokesman Richard Scher said officials there weren't familiar with the ideas behind Never Ship Empty, but they are "always interested" in exploring new ways of operating.
"Our Seagirt Marine Terminal averages about 37 container moves per hour, which within the maritime world is considered to be highly industrious," Scher said. "Operating at maximum efficiency is very important for us to continue competing at high levels in the very challenging maritime industry."
Sara Russell, an instructor of maritime and supply chain management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., said Never Ship Empty's approach could help shippers get around the cost of off-loading some cargo from large ships before they reach port. But there could be other expenses that such an approach could incur, such as the storage of the hulls, that may cause shippers and ports to balk at the idea.
"They're adding operational costs," Russell said. "Shippers are going to have to weigh the costs. ... The whole idea is to achieve economies of scale."
Elizondo said operational costs would likely decrease, and shippers and merchants will save money in the long run because the time it takes to complete shipments will have dropped.
Through their careers in the military, Elizondo and Robert, who live on Kent Island, have familiarity with homeland security issues and port regulations. They believe their new logistics process - if implemented in the United States and in foreign ports - would help the federal government move more quickly to screen all cargo that comes into port.
The next steps for Elizondo and Robert involve partnering with the University of Houston for a feasibility study that would further test their ideas. That study is expected to begin shortly.