A Paradigm Shift

Vessels being loaded at Port Canaveral in Florida.

Vessels being loaded at Port Canaveral in Florida.

Technology trends in automation are changing how work is done at ports and terminals

By Kathy A. Smith

As automation begins to play a larger role at port terminals in order for seaborne trade to move faster, the impact will undoubtedly be felt by the labor workforce as jobs become less labor-intensive and more computer-based. Yet this paradigm shift won’t necessarily mean fewer jobs.

“Terminals will always need people, and people are a critical element of automation,” said Ashebir Jacob, senior port engineer for Moffatt and Nichol. “What drives automation varies regionally, but most industry drivers focus on the need to be economical and energy efficient.”

Equipment is center stage, and making vastly different kinds of equipment work together in an automated environment challenges port terminal operators – automated terminal equipment is not plug-and-play. A terminal working 24 hours a day with highly sophisticated automated equipment requires a different kind of know-how to keep the cargo flowing.

The 18,000-TEU ships now joining the fleet will spend the same five days at berth as 8,000-TEU vessels, doubling cargo volume and creating large peaks at terminals. Automated stacking systems can provide the added boost to maintaining productivity at the quay, densifying terminal yards and improving utilization.

“When a vessel arrives in port, you have to double the work you used to do,” said Jacob. “The more efficient you become, the more volume you attract.”

According to Jacob, currently on the U.S. West Coast, non-automated terminal utilization is in the range of 65 percent, but that number can be pushed to almost 80 percent when additional automation with high-density stacking cranes is implemented.

Milind Desai, P.E., S.E., of CH2M HILL said he understands that as terminals move to more automation, some traditional jobs may shift from manual labor in the field to maintenance of automation equipment and instrument technicians/computerized operations. However, he added, it’s still a major infrastructure challenge to automate.

“There are a number of challenges that must be addressed to make the economic feasibility assessment of existing ports in the USA,” he says. “For example, while container storage density may be higher with automation, is there sufficient infrastructure to support the expected higher throughput?”

With more larger ships on the horizon, there could be some drops in efficiency, but they may be mitigated by taller STS cranes and/or possibly adding an additional STS crane, a high level of automation of the STS cranes or moving to double hoist/tandem spreader STS cranes.

Where high levels of automation have already been implemented, the gains have mostly met expectations, said Desai. “The technologies today are robust and equipment throughout the automation process will need to increase in speed and accuracy. Constant research should lead to even greater efficiencies. Terminal operation and process software are probably the areas where needed improvements will be forthcoming.”

No doubt the decision to implement automation technologies requires an extensive evaluation of multiple factors to ultimately reach an economic feasibility. Given the trend of higher capacity ships and the need for greater efficiencies, implementation of automation technologies at ports will become increasingly necessary.

“We need a full-scale modernization and automation of the entire industry, or we’re going to perish and die,” said John Walsh, chief executive officer of the Canaveral Port Authority. “Our ports are getting 24 and 25 boxes an hour in productivity while China, the Middle East and Europe are moving 45-50 boxes an hour. That’s double the productivity with the same tool, and that tells me that we need to sharpen our skill set.”

Walsh said he believes there are some terminals in the U.S. that are still operating like they did during the 1950s and ‘60s, and if the port industry were to follow the example of how the automobile industry modernized, it would become a more efficient and robust, higher-earning economic engine.

“We need to triple our exports in this country in the next five years, and we need to grow by twentyfold in the next 20 years in order to remain competitive in the world GDP,” he said.

How does this startling fact impact dock workers? Walsh said people’s fear of being displaced in the future is often just that. He sees a different reality. He envisions the modern container terminal as having a central area, no longer having operators up on the crane. Instead, people will work in control rooms with 3D virtual reality screens. Automated equipment will need to be built, installed and maintained, which will still involve human beings.

“I don’t think anybody is going to lose their job,” he said. “Maybe there’ll be a little shifting of jobs where somebody who has been low-skilled labor is going to need to have the skill or at least his or her son or daughter will need to have the skills. And I think there will be an equalization of the workforce. Where the port industry has been very heavily male and same-family dominated, now it will be a group of people.”

Walsh said he looks to the Georgia Port Authority as a main benchmark for best practices in investing in automation and promoting positive labor relations. Comparing March 2015 volumes to March 2014, the Port of Savannah saw a 27.8 percent increase in container traffic: “That says when you have good labor relations and you have invested in technology and equipment in your port, you’re going to get growth,” says Walsh. “They have invested. They have a very friendly labor-management relationship. And more importantly, they have a single-entity terminal.”

Port Canaveral has partnered with Gulftainer because the company is considered one of the highest productivity terminals in the world.

“Even with modern equipment, that person who has spent 30 or 40 years on the dock has intuitive knowledge that we need to harness and pass on to the next generation before he or she retires. What we do is not rocket science,” said Walsh. “And it’s laughable that we can’t do it efficiently.”


Automation and Jobs

Cargo moving in and out of ports has required ports to hire more people, even though the volume per person being moved is considerably greater because of mechanization, says John Beckett, vice president of training, safety and recruitment for the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association.

Beckett reports that in the past five years, the association has brought approximately 2,400 new people into the BC West Coast region’s port industry and will likely recruit another 400-500 this year, 90 percent of whom stay for the long haul.

In 2014, Beckett trained more than 1,100 people on different pieces of cargo handling equipment and systems due to a variety of reasons that include promoted or retiring employees and/or improvements at terminal operations that warrant training upgrades.

While the move to increased terminal mechanization and automation is apparent around the world, Beckett believes technology is changing jobs for the workforce on some levels. Just 50 years ago, cargo was handled almost exclusively by thousands of laborers. The work has changed in that 50 short years from almost 100 percent laboring to 65 percent mechanized cargo handling equipment, which facilitates the movement of a vastly greater volume of cargo.

Still, with the increasing growth in cargo volumes, there is a move to automated terminals, which again is changing the work picture, said Beckett. “You need a lot of computer people, mechanics and electricians, more probably than you have on a semi-automated terminal, but the huge volume of people you now see on a container terminal will just not be there.”