MFMs in focus at IBIA & Port of Rotterdam technology forum

MFMs in focus at IBIA & Port of Rotterdam technology forum

Are mass flow meters (MFMs) the way forward for the bunker industry? The answer to this question depends on who you ask, and generated lively debate at the technology forum co-organised by IBIA and the Port of Rotterdam on May 16.

Two of the presenters were companies who have experience of supplying bunkers both with and without MFMs. Unsurprisingly, they were in favour of the technology, citing the efficiency gains they bring, and because their accuracy and elimination of human error in measurements reduces the scope for quantity disputes. MFM maker Emerson also spoke about positive customer feedback, while VPS covered the role of the surveyor, in particular in Singapore, which made MFMs mandatory for marine fuel oil bunker deliveries at the start of the year.

Armelle Breneol, Marine Fuels Logistics Advisor at ExxonMobil, gave a compelling account of the advantages of bunker deliveries using MFMs. She described a worst case scenario where, even without any fraud, measurement can cost as much as $5 per metric tonne for a 1,000 mt stem when adding up the cost of employing a bunker quantity surveyor, errors in recorded density and temperature. Comparatively, using MFM measurements would be less than a typical $2 pmt cost of employing a quantity surveyor and eliminate miscalculations caused by using the wrong density and temperature when converting the delivery volume into mass.

Breneol said effective and accurate measurements are hard to do well manually, saying it requires a lot of crew training. All equipment, such as sounding tapes and thermometers, must be certified. She said the human element is the most complex and requires continuous training efforts.

MFMs have significant benefits, eliminating human error as it is a fully automated process, gives major time savings compared to manual sounding of all barge and vessel tanks, and potentially significant cost benefit by improving the accuracy of measurements, she said.

VT Group has certified MFM systems on seven bunker barges in total deployed in Rotterdam and Panama, Hugo Sassen, Business Development, VT Group told the forum. Sassen said the way to keep customers happy is to provide timely deliveries, and for some of their biggest customers, such as Maersk Line, speedy delivery is also essential.

He said MFMs ensure transparent and accurate measurements for all parties involved and “no monkey business”, adding that VT has had positive feedback from customers receiving bunkers from barges with MFM systems.

Hugo Sassen, VT Group, speaking at the Forum

Suppliers in the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp region are not all convinced that MFMs offer any discernible advantages, in part because almost all barges in the region are calibrated and certified by a government-appointed institute. It was argued that MFMs will not eliminate all issues and alleged discrepancies between receiving vessels’ bunker tanks and barge cargo tanks. Another curious element is that the density reported on the bunker delivery note is the one the barge was given when loading cargo at the terminal, not the one recorded by the MFM, which will typically record an average density reading for each delivery.

Naveen Hegde, Business Development Manager, Emerson Automation Solutions, explained elements of the technology and the process required before a barge can achieve MFM certification.  He suggested measurement accuracy was typically within 0.05% from terminal to barge and within 0.01% from barge to ship when using MFMs. The minimum requirement for MFM systems approved for use in Singapore is 0.5% accuracy.

Steve Bee, Group Commercial & Business Development Director, Veritas Petroleum Services (VPS), said the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore decided to make MFMs mandatory to push out marginal players and boost the port’s reputation. As of January 6, 2017, there were 132 bunker tankers with MPA-approved MFMs in the port.

Despite this, and the MFM readings being legally binding, there is still a key role for bunker quantity surveyors, he said. This is because ship operators do not, for the most part, have detailed knowledge of the technical standard that must be followed during MFM bunker deliveries in Singapore, TR 48.

Bee said surveyors can help owners undertake all the relevant checks of the MFM system on the barge and oversee and witness all aspects of the process. The surveyor also provides an independent third party service to help with any documentation required should there be a dispute.

VPS employed an MFM Technologist at the end of 2016 to look into all the technical aspects of MFMs, and has recently launched a quick screening MFM evaluation service. The MFM Technologist will review each case for significant parameters, and give a ‘complied’ or ‘noncomplied’ comment which will be included in the BQS report.

VPS has seen cases where short delivery to vessel occurred during MFM deliveries in Singapore, demonstrating that MFMs is not a guarantee that the receiving vessel gets what the BDN says. “If the people are not reliable then the technology cannot help,” he observed.

Bee said it was nevertheless the case that MFMs improve efficiency by speeding up bunkering operations and provide more transparency and helps reduce malpractice. Disputes are not eradicated, however, but have become more complex to resolve, making the role of bunker surveyor as important as ever.

So back to the opening question: Are mass flow meters the way forward for the bunker industry? It seems the answer is mostly ‘yes’ but as with everything, it depends on circumstances. It is a significant investment to make and suppliers must be able to justify it in terms of efficiency gains, reputational gain and remaining competitive. It might be a while before you find this technology in smaller ports served by a single bunker barge.

Report by Unni Einemo

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