From tasks small to large, technology is increasingly being used to carry out more work at ports that formerly was the responsibility of staff. This sophisticated new technology often offers both safety advantages and challenges, helping to create a safer environment but only if integrated carefully to ensure that employees and machines can interact together without creating fresh risks for workers.
Joseph Zaki, founder and CEO of Loko AI, said as appealing as new technology and its productivity potential can be to ports and others, an emphasis on safety is essential to implementing any new tech tools.
“Worker safety is always paramount,” Zaki said. “There’s an absolute need for the ports to add capacity and move more product, but they also have to balance that with safety.”
Addressing a Need
Because of pandemic-related demands on the supply chain, “workers are working harder than they ever have under more stressful conditions than ever,” leading to increased potential for human error and safety risks, Zaki said. Against that backdrop, automation has been a prominent piece of the push to use technology to create safer, more efficient port environments.
Alex Piquer, a technology consulting director for 1898 & Co., part of Burns & McDonnell, said ports in Europe and China have more rapidly adopted automation than those in the United States have so far, though West Coast ports increasingly are leading the way among their counterparts in the States.
“What we’ve seen in the last two years – including the focus on ports as a very central part of the supply chain – has forced a lot of people to think about their processes differently, how to become more efficient, where it makes more sense to automate where there are shortages of labor, and where automation can help alleviate those bottlenecks,” Piquer said.
Zaki said the ship-to-shore operation involves the heaviest equipment and most dangerous work at the ports, and one of the chief areas where automation is being used to ease the burden on port workers and improve safety is with heavy lifting work. Automated stackers, for instance, are being deployed at many ports, as are autonomous vehicles to move cargo around. “There’s certainly going to be more development in those areas,” Piquer said.
“I think a lot of that has to do with both efficiency and safety,” Piquer said. “It’s about getting people out of the way of some of the more dangerous jobs on the port. Ports can operate in really difficult environments, so when you’re able to use those kinds of automation and technology, you can get people out of harm’s way in a lot of cases.”
Automation can ease the demand on workers and improve safety in that climate, but also brings its own unique safety issues.
“When you have robotics and humans together in a single environment, there are going to be problems that you have to sort out,” Zaki said.
Sensors, cameras and radar are some of the key tools being used in conjunction with automation, keeping machines and workers from crossing paths in hazardous situations. No matter the specific tool, Piquer said to integrate automation safely it’s crucial to have data, context and visibility that ensures “that people and machines are essentially aware of each other at every point along the way.”
Tracking and Connectivity
Piquer said data connectivity and data quality often are overlooked when implementing new technology. However, connectivity and the real-time availability of critical pieces of data are essential to safety, he said.
“Having the systems to transmit data not only to the machine itself, but to people who can troubleshoot – to avoid problems, they have to have that data in real time,” Piquer said. “We can’t just rely on algorithms. People still have to make a lot of decisions to keep everyone else safe, and I think that’s a really big piece that needs to be considered before ports or any industry starts implementing large automation projects.”
Related to that point, poor equipment condition and malfunctions can lead to an array of accidents that risk workers’ safety. Therefore, condition monitoring is a vital contribution to safety at ports, and it depends heavily on strong connectivity and the use of a variety of tech tools.
Using an interconnected network of cellular-connected sensors and a cloud-based monitoring solution, ports can monitor the condition of their equipment, helping to anticipate failures before they occur and respond quickly to malfunctions, according to Ericsson’s “Connected Ports Report.” If an issue is identified, the equipment can be shut down remotely or automatically for the repair to occur, ensuring repairs happen in safe conditions. Remote condition monitoring also means workers do not have to monitor and inspect equipment on the ground, removing them from sometimes hazardous circumstances.
Similarly, drones equipped with cameras increasingly are being used to inspect and examine difficult-to-access infrastructure and equipment, thereby strengthening safety conditions and reducing worker vulnerability, according to Ericsson’s report. Rigorous processes are important for the safe use of drones in any environment where workers operate.
Technology can track workplace conditions in a variety of ways to strengthen safety. Loko AI’s Caretaker, for instance, is an artificial intelligence computer vision tool that can autonomously monitor workplaces, detect hazards and alert appropriate parties about worker safety and security risks. The software, which Zaki said has been deployed at The Port of Virginia for more than two years, uses existing port cameras to monitor areas in real time.
Zaki said any port can identify where major safety incidents have occurred but technology such as Caretaker can help pinpoint and track closely where other, less noticeable safety incidents or risks are occurring, helping ports to address them and prevent them from repeating or leading to more severe results.
Systems and Processes
Lester Millet III, executive director, InfraGard Louisiana, said integrating new technology safely at a port starts with researching solutions that match your organization’s specific needs. He recommends assembling a small team to integrate the new systems. Each port will need to develop policies and procedures related to the technology that aligns with their unique operation, tweaking after the new system is launched as needed. Thorough training of the workforce with an eye on redundancy is key, Millet said
“Any time new technologies are adopted into the work environment, skilled employees must be properly trained to operate, analyze and calibrate these new systems,” he said.
Piquer noted that major safety tech advances, such as sensors and pattern recognition, can be part of an effective automated safety system, but “they’re not enough themselves.”
“We’ve seen it with the self-driving cars,” Piquer said. “There are things that can happen. As we see more automation and more interaction between machines and humans, we have to continue to develop those safety systems.”
Piquer said operations that implement new technology such as automation sometimes fail to consider the broader picture and how automation fits into a port’s overall process.
“Throughout the implementation of technology, whether it’s automation or other types of machine learning, there can be a tendency to do that in a little bit of a silo,” Piquer said. “So, they say, ‘I’m going to solve one particular problem by putting this in place,’ but they’re not looking at it in terms of, ‘Alright, what’s the impact on my overall system, my overall process?’ And that’s really critical when it comes to safety and considering how people interact with these new systems.”
Safety for workers depends on a blend of technology and established processes and training. Piquer said, “We rely on the technology to provide the real-time, fast-acting safety systems, but process is also a critical piece.”
“As we look to implement technology, and automation, in particular, it’s really important to look at the overall workflow, the overall process and how that changes with the implementation of technology,” Piquer said. “So how does that change the roles people have and the work that they’re doing? Ensure that those processes, procedures and safety measures are really updated. And sometimes it takes some change management – it’s not just a question of plugging in an automated piece of equipment in place of a manually operated one. It changes everything around it. We’ve got to recognize that it’s not necessarily just a one-for-one [trade]and run with it. There’s a lot of process evaluation and change management that needs to happen to be able to do these things safely.”