The automation of container ports
14 January 2019

At first glance, the Yangshan Deep Water Port, just south of Shanghai, looks much like any other. Overhead cranes can be seen working alongside a docked ship, lifting and transferring its cargo containers onto the backs of a succession of trucks as they come and go from the yard. It may take a minute to realise the subtle difference in this picture: neither the cranes nor the trucks have cabins. The entire operation is automated.

Yangshan, like Australia’s Victoria International Terminal and the RWG Terminal at Rotterdam, is one of a small but growing number of international container-handling hubs to have completed the transition to unmanned technology. But how complete is this transition really? What is the technology that currently defines an automated port? And how might it – and ports – continue to evolve?

Port automation – what is the future?

For most seaports today the journey towards automation has already begun with crane motion control. Thanks to the steady proliferation of maritime commerce and a consequent escalation in the size of ports, ships and associated machinery, dockside cranes have become too big and unwieldy for manual manipulation alone.

Elements of crane handling such as smooth lifting and lowering, steady luffing and anti-sway control are these days achieved through advanced motor control systems. Digital drives, whose modules carry specifically written software, are used in concert with lasers and weight sensors to adjust and optimise the behaviour of the crane’s motors.

Improved speed, precision and efficiency are the results; with crane operators increasingly removed from the machines and conducting operations remotely from a control room. From such a vantage point the loading and unloading of ships by crane may be coordinated with the use of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) to transport containers into and away from the yard itself. Originally developed for use in warehouses and factories, AGVs are usually controlled by means of guide wires set into the floor, magnetic directional tapes, laser piloting systems or even GPS. Most of these approaches are problematic in the port environment, mainly due to the obstructive presence of large metal objects and adverse weather conditions. For this reason, transponder-based navigation systems have been favoured by, for example, the port at Rotterdam. 

More data and integrated information

Certain other areas of port automation are the result of new applications of sensor technology. The Port of Valencia, for example, has installed 200 ‘black boxes’ on its cranes and yard vehicles in order continuously to monitor operations and energy consumption levels. And Rotterdam is currently investing in an extensive quayside network of sensors in pursuit of a dynamic database of water, weather and traffic information.

An up-to-date, accurate overview of yard activity from a centralised dashboard has the potential to cut pockets of idle time significantly. And, with information from ships integrated into the system, waiting times can be reduced, optimal docking times determined and a higher volume of traffic achieved.

The kind of data analysis performed by an information system such as that used at Rotterdam brings together geographical, environmental and logistical information in order to disclose patterns and relationships not readily observable in raw data. These patterns have the potential to underpin port management decisions that will heighten efficiency while keeping operations safe and smooth.

After all, although the size of ships and cranes has grown in line with the rising volume of container commerce, ports themselves are not at liberty to get bigger in the same way. The availability of waterfront real estate is as restricted as ever. An automated port will stack and stow its containers deep and high with an organisational intelligence far beyond the head-scratching practices of old.

The latest technology is geared towards and braced for the arrival of autonomous ships, though experts believe these are still over a decade away. When the first unmanned vessels do begin docking in unmanned ports, it will represent a milestone in the ongoing digital integration of consecutive links in the international supply chain.

The smart shipping containers technology

The Smart Shipping Containers Technology
In the meantime, a further step towards that integration has been taken by the development of smart shipping containers. A number of companies now offer the technology – a combination of environmental sensors, GPS positioning and cloud computing platforms – by which containers are not just tracked but tied to the kind of data that might both expedite logistics and make them more secure.

Approaching customs electronically, for example, with certified safe containers automatically given expedited clearance, has the potential dramatically to reduce unnecessary delays and paperwork. When enough elements of the logistical picture are securely digitalized and distributed – blockchain is the obvious way of doing it – then goods arriving at a port might be collected by the right truck driver and even paid for without queue or form-filling.

Some of this, of course, is still in the future; indeed for most ports most of it is. The fact remains that, to date, and despite the examples mentioned, automation in commercial ports has not flourished in the way that it has in, say, factories and warehouses. The USA, in particular, has been slow to adjust to the technology, being especially sensitive, it seems, to such issues as union resistance and capital investment.

It is probable that the underlying cause of the inertia – and the greatest challenge faced by ports as they prepare to automate fully – is the difficulty of system-wide digitalization. Investment in disparate aspects of automation technology may fail to yield productivity gains if the port’s operating terminal remains fragmented between incomplete, partly obsolete or differently formatted information streams.

But more than this: standardisation here ultimately requires in-depth, systemic collaboration with the numerous stakeholders – customs authorities, shippers, railways, trucking companies, other ports – at the intersection of whose own increasingly automated businesses ports must function.

Commercial ports – those great connectors of global trade routes – may have to do more than almost anyone else to realise the kind of connectivity that automation in the digital age ultimately requires.

Browse all Sectors blog posts