The first automated marine container terminal began operating 25 years ago. Automation got off to a slow start, kind of like a Saturn V rocket, moving slowly on a pillar of fire. We’re in the age of the Falcon rocket now, launching many new terminals each year.
Originally limited to a narrow choice of machine systems, there are now a dozen or more combinations of automated cranes and automated transport vehicles. Control systems and the hardware they reside on continue to advance, with new approaches, algorithms, and techniques explored with each new terminal development.
New systems are proliferating, with multiple manufactures now actively engaged in research, development, invention, prototyping, testing, licensing, and delivery. Developers now have choices in systems and suppliers, as well as access to sophisticated planning and analysis tools that support informed selection.
Many leading professionals in the maritime field believe that full automation of every marine terminal is the inevitable end state for all the world’s ports, reflecting better overall performance, capacity, efficiency, environmental footprint, safety, and operating cost.
And yet, after 25 years, only about 10% of the world’s terminals are automated, and new non-automated facilities are still being built. If automation is the perfect solution everywhere, it should be seeing universal application. Clearly, it is not the perfect solution everywhere. At least, not yet.
Now that we have achieved some level of maturity, consistency, and clarity about implementing automation, it is a good time to step back a bit, and to focus on those elements that can still be improved.
The most widespread manual system is based on rubber-tyred gantry cranes (RTGs), frequently combined with front-end loaders, with transport handled by trucks. The other dominant system relies on straddle carriers as both cranes and transporters.
On the automation side, facilities are either “semi-automated”, using robotic cranes supported by manned transport, or “fully-automated”, using robots as both cranes and transporters.
In between full- manual and automated systems lie the incremental improvements. These include remote control, automated process control, assistive technologies, blockchains, or other “smart” technologies to existing manual systems to benefit from selected advantages of automation.
If automation is going to replace manual systems, it has to compete across a wide range of key performance factors. Let’s see where we are:
The differences between these systems are not all in favour of automation. There is no pure “best” or “worst” system.
So, why do port developers still choose manual systems?
Manual systems are simpler to staff with both terminal workers and managers. They are more readily understood and managed by the available workforce in most port cities. Not every city is home to a Silicon Valley or a raft of sophisticated technical universities and a pool of trained robotic technicians.
Manual systems are more scaleable. They can be adapted to small and large terminals, and the deployment of resources can be more readily increased or decreased in response to volume changes. Not every port is a front-line port with a secure position in global trade lanes and confidence in future volumes.
Manual systems cost less up front. Most of the required capital is spent on civil works, usually funded by the local port authority using public funding or financing. Automated systems require a much higher investment in equipment. Not every terminal operator has access to plentiful, cheap, and enlightened private financing.
Manual systems are easier to deploy within existing, or “brownfield”, port complexes. They don’t require wholesale restructuring of infrastructure or the creation of a separate operating realm within the terminal. Not every port and terminal operator can afford to carry the capitalised cost of lost revenue during terminal remodeling, with confidence of future recovery.
If you have money, a greenfield site, a strong local technical workforce, and strong development capabilities, automation is great! You’ll get decent vessel service, great gate service, decent capacity, great safety, low pollution, low operating cost, and decent combined unit cost.
If you have an outstanding manual system, are short of capital, are modifying an existing terminal, don’t support a large freight market, or don’t have a sophisticated development team, you have to think about it. Maybe incremental improvement is the way to go? Yes, but then you have even more to think about! Fortunately, there are more and more vendors who are more than willing to help.
So, Falcons and Dragons and Atlases and Orions and Pegasi and Vulcans and New Shepards and more and more. But do you want to rocket into space? Or go to New York on a Dreamliner? Or just bop down to Rome on an A320? There is still a lot to think about, talk about and do in the realm of container terminal automation.
Tom Ward is Director of Maritime Planning at wsp, a global management and engineering consultancy firm focused on the built and natural environments. He has been involved in port and terminal design and planning since the early 1980s and is a regular advisor and contributor to TOC events around the world. At TOC Europe 2019, 17-19 June, Rotterdam, Tom will be joined by Yvo Saanen of TBA Group and Rob van Eijndhoven of RVE Management to review current terminal automation systems and discuss the road ahead