It was only a question of time. The so-called fourth industrial revolution has hit ports full force. Automation is rolling out, especially for high-volume operations.
Deploying technology like machine-tomachine communication and automated functions allows ports and their supply chain partners to work remotely and improve processes: monitoring, communication, analysis, diagnostics and performance. Sometimes issues can be solved without human intervention.
Automated, connected, partially autonomous and completely driverless vehicles are already in use at many ports – from unmanned tugs to remote-controlled cranes to automated gates.
The Port of Hamburg has had self-driving vehicles since 2001. It is now reportedly looking at Hyperloop – a vacuum-tube system to transport containers at up to 1,000 kilometers per hour.
Connected trucks are in service in some U.S. states, with a driver in the first truck of a convoy who can release driverless truck loads from the end of the convoy at a series of receiving yards.
Autonomous construction machinery may be next, facilitating capital projects. Some high-tech construction machines are already semi-autonomous, with humans operating the machine, but with the machine, such as a bulldozer, automatically collecting data, analyzing it, making decisions and storing the information.
But, not everyone likes automation. Many unions fight it, fearing loss of livelihoods. There are safety concerns too, sometimes misplaced. And some organizations struggle to find the up-front capital often associated with automation.
On the flip side, the benefits of automating port processes can be startling, often including employee job satisfaction and retention benefits. Efficiency, accuracy and productivity can be enhanced. Processes can be accelerated. Automation can spur upskilling of workforces. Employee morale can be improved, especially by eliminating monotony. Human error and bias can be reduced.
Mega-Ships Drive Change
Port automation and remote operations are becoming almost a necessity when it comes to handling the massive amount of cargo on mega ships. Berths, cranes and equipment, yard space, and carrying capacity can all be upsized, but without some degree of automation, it is hard to improve turn and dwell times. It takes modern, connected systems of equipment and modal assets and expertise to move the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle. The volumes are large, the port space is finite and the timetable is always tight.
Such challenges drive change.
The Hong Kong Seaport Alliance, which controls 23 of the container berths at the world’s historically busiest port, is deploying remote systems to retain market share. New initiatives include a Remote Container Inspector System and Real-time Remote Reefer Monitoring System to give customers better visibility of containers.
At the Port of Long Beach, the $1.5 billion Long Beach Container Terminal (LBCT) Middle Harbor project was just completed in June 2021, after 10 years in the making. Once fully operational, the fully automated facility will have an annual capacity of 3.3 million TEUs and automated elements will include 70 stacking cranes and 72 guided vehicles. It will have 14 ship-to-shore cranes and six will be able to handle 24,000-TEU plus vessels. All will be electric and dual-lift.
“The future is very much here,” said Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero, who called this project a game-changer. “It will be the most advanced terminal in the Americas, if not the world.”
At The Port of Virginia, a $312 million investment in Virginia International Gateway (VIG) doubled container capacity to 1.2 million units. The container yard consists of 28 semi-automated stacks, served by 56 rail mounted gantry (RMG) cranes. The stacks can process more than 3,500 truck transactions each day. Many of VIG’s operations can be performed remotely, from a centralized terminal operations building.
Rich Ceci, SVP of technology and project management at The Port of Virginia, said, “Today VIG has remotely operated gates, yard cranes and intermodal (rail) cranes. The gate operations include interacting with drivers, performing exchanges (receiving or delivering containers), damage inspections and empty container inspections.” ILA gate staff work from inside the main terminal operations building. “The Automated Stacking Cranes are operated by exception – that means the last few feet when picking a container up from a truck, or delivering it to a truck. The advantage to the remote operation is the comfort and safety of the driver and the operation.”
Ceci said that productivity metrics report 32-35 moves per hour per STS crane. “Most people would say that 30 is very good. Our container delivery accuracy is virtually 100%. Our lost time accidents are well below industry averages and most are not related to the container movement operations. Our turn times are world class.”
Liebherr Container Cranes recently delivered eight ultra-large ship-to-shore cranes to Tangier Alliance’s TC3 Terminal in Morocco. The “future-proof” models have a 26-row outreach, fiber-optic cores in the cabling, fault monitoring and remote diagnostics. Safety features including laser and ultrasonic anti-collision systems as well as smart slowdowns, installed as standard. Liebherr also manufactures mobile cranes with LICCON2 control systems that can be operated with a BTT Bluetooth remote control, allowing all crane movements to be controlled from outside the cab.
Konecranes is also producing cranes that address the industry’s transition to greater automation. At the Port of Rotterdam, APMT Rotterdam container terminal recently received a fleet of Konecranes’ “automation-ready” Noell straddle carriers equipped with a proprietary Fleet Management System to give service personnel remote visibility. Konecranes deems its Path to Port Automation as an adaptable road map that allows a terminal to enjoy increasing levels of automation, at its own pace and price. “From smart features up to full automation, the path can include supervised operation and remote operation to smoothly introduce the power of automation…Full automation can be the final goal, but it doesn’t have to be. Flexibility is the key.”
In their report, “Port Automation: The Konecranes Story February 2021,” the company said, “Automation is a path with a singular outcome: optimum operational efficiency.”
One key ingredient of automation is remote operation. It is, “not so much a step in the process as an optional stage. While it is logical for remote operation to become a natural next step after a certain level of technological upgrading has been done, the Konecranes approach can even convert terminals with 100% manual yard fleets,” according to the report. Konecranes field-tested this successfully at DP World Yarimca in Turkey, where two manual RTGs in the container yard were converted to remote operation. The Konecranes remote operating software interfaces directly with the terminal’s TOS (regardless of brand) and delivers work orders directly to the crane operator’s touch panel. The remote operator then executes the job as it would be done in a manual crane.
“Remote operation can also be approached as an automation-free way to enable more productivity for each operator, as well,” said Thomas Gylling, director of marketing and CX at Konecranes. At most container terminals that operate with manned yard cranes, there is a lot of idle time for the crane operators in between work orders – sometimes as much as 50% of a work shift, said Gylling. Having operators working remotely allows them to control any of the cranes out in the yard and easily shift from one to another as work orders come through. “Konecranes has run analysis of the idling time of our yard cranes around the world via our TRUCONNECT, and learned that there is a clear business case for remote operations, even for the busier terminals,” said Gylling.
Not a Human in Sight
It isn’t just container ports that have invested in remote functionality. The energy industry is also at the forefront. At the Port of Corpus Christi, where there has been $55 billion in mostly energy-related private investment in and around the port in the last seven years, CEO Sean Strawbridge said, “These companies are already highly automated. They are capital intensive, not labor intensive. Control of a Corpus Christi asset might come from a central control room in San Antonio or Houston.”
As the energy industry evolves, so does the port. It is leveling up in its role as the Energy Port of the Americas, taking proactive steps toward, for example, the deployment of carbon capture and storage technologies. “We are prepared for the next things…and automation is key to that,” said Strawbridge.
The port has developed a new technology advancement program as a way to support port processes. “We are not going to be a slave to tech, but we are embracing new ideas, unconventional thinking. That excites me. I want to have my eyes open to the next new thing.”
Looking forward, Strawbridge sees opportunity for automation of tugs, other vessels, rail and trucking. “On our Joe Fulton corridor, a seven-mile stretch on the north side of the inner harbor, we are installing nodes that can recognize traffic issues, communicate with autonomous vehicles, report status. For cargo operations that go directly from vessel to truck, we will be able to sequence the trucks in a way to get optimal productivity. We will complete the project in the next 12 months,” said Strawbridge.
Autonomy on the roads continues to be tested and researched, and the U.S. Department of Transportation has already developed the Automated Vehicles Comprehensive Plan to facilitate the safe development, testing and integration of automated vehicle technologies. And, autonomous transportation solutions are being tested both at and for ports.
Just recently, Volvo Autonomous Solutions announced it is working with the Port of Gothenburg and other commercial partners on a pilot program to collect data using a manned sensor-equipped truck. The testing is taking place in confined port areas as well as on public roads. The 21 sensors on the truck – consisting of radars, lidars and cameras – will be logging the surroundings of the vehicles as well as the driver’s interaction with the vehicle. Data collected will be used to develop artificial intelligence to design a safe, automated and connected system for the continuous flow of goods.
“It is full speed ahead in the development of on-road as well as off-road transportation solutions,” said Nils Jaeger, president of Volvo Autonomous Solutions. “Autonomous transport has an important role to play in the future of logistics and will benefit both business and society in terms of productivity, safety and sustainability.”