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Should ports rush to automate? Alex To

Automation: Miracle cure or red herring? Senior ports and maritime engineer Alex To appraises the opportunities and benefits.

Mention automation in container ports and most people think ‘heavy machinery’, and the use of robotics and software to replace humans operating cranes and vehicles. The new fully automated Euromax Port at Rotterdam offers a state-of-the-art example of how the substitution of manual operation can bring impressive efficiencies and competitive advantages. Containers move from ship-to-shore, quay-to-stack and yard-to-gate without humans physically touching them.

Ports that can afford horizontal transfer systems and electric automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) can expect to see a return in terms of safety and scheduling. Removing the human element may also allow an increased number of shifts, 24-hour operation and less downtime due to adverse weather. And of course, machines can reduce health and safety risks for humans. Software doesn’t get distracted by a football match or have a bad night’s sleep.

But the upfront costs are huge and may not prove worthwhile where labour is affordable. Manual ports are also more flexible to changing economic climates in what is traditionally a volatile marketplace. Terminals that are wary of the risks may choose to pursue semi-automation instead.

Harnessing the internet of things

Heavy machinery is just one chapter of the automation story. In today’s economic climate, where efficiencies are sought across every facet of the supply chain, port operators are wise to implement an integrated port community management system that will control and harmonise all aspects of daily business from a central data hub.

A customised system will connect, co-ordinate and optimise everything: wet side activities such as vessel arrival, berthing, anchorage, bunkering and exit; dry side activities such as control, authorisation, customs, stacking and registering; and hinterland activity such as trucks and rail traffic entering the port gate. By smoothing the logistics chain – so that every party knows what’s happening and when, and automating access through intelligent scanning of bar codes and licence plates – port operators can turn ships round quicker and lessen the threat of costly delays.

Hamburg Port offers an example of how smart infrastructure and advanced use of data can increase trade flows and protect resources. Speeding up connections in the port is integral to its ambitious target to achieve a 70% reduction in operational costs over the next seven years. In particular, the port is succeeding in increasing container capacity without increasing landmass, by creating a port-wide ‘nervous system’ – its own Internet of Things. “By gathering data from around the port, the system creates intelligence, and puts it to use in real-time,” according to the port’s smart technology partner Cisco. “Port traffic is faster. Port logistics are simpler. Delays that were once inevitable are eliminated.”

The case for automation may be compelling, but it is worth stressing that it should not be treated as a trophy worth chasing at any cost. Automation is not a panacea, if the processes are not right. Before you swap your workforce for algorithms, a far more cost-effective and efficient approach may well be to improve what you have already.

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