With M&A fever raging throughout shipping, terminal operators look to what must be done as mega ships in mega alliances dominate life afloat on east-west routes.
The response of the biggest and boldest is terminal automation, be it partial or total. At a time when ships get bigger and make fewer port calls, and dump massive amounts of at one time, terminals large and small must find ways to cope.
Those that fail will be quickly abandoned by desperate carriers seeking those that can do the job to retain fickle shippers, who are forever in search of a better price and quicker service in a market afflicted with over supply.
Thus, terminal operators are poised to forge alliances themselves to counter the increased carrier power conferred by vessel sharing agreements, which bring with each port call a deluge of cargo with as many as 10,000 containers to-ing and fro-ing within hours.
But automation is no quick fix. Front-end costs are enormous, avoiding labour strife nearly impossible and its introduction is plagued with breakdowns. All of which are made worse because they are only discovered in the course of serving finicky customers when things are up and running.
That’s why few do it, and most of those, do it tentatively and incrementally. Ninety-four per cent of all container terminals are still manual, two per cent are fully automated, and four per cent are semi-automated.
While the risks of taking the plunge into automation are undeniable, the perils of not doing it are plainly evident. The port that takes the plunge is likely to feel the benefit of lower costs and greater efficiency while those that took the cautious route are equally likely to be relegated to secondary if not tertiary status.
It seems market concentration in ocean shipping will intensify. What’s more the four mega alliances seem likely to be distilled into three larger, more powerful alliances within a few months.
Hong Kong’s Hutchison Port Holdings (HPH) has not gone all the way in Brisbane and Sydney with its nGen systems, but its partial automation has increased port capacity and streamlined containers flow.
While the new quay cranes and automated stacking cranes (ASC) might be the most noticeable features of the terminals, it is the advanced IT system at the core of the operations that provide Hutchison Ports Australian (HPA) the ability to manage containers so much better.
Initially developed by HPH for Shenzhen’s Yantian International Container Terminals and Hongkong International Terminals, the system has been operational at Terminal Catalunya in Spain, Tanzania International Container Terminal Services, Jakarta International Container Terminal and at the Oman International Container Terminal.
At the Sydney and Brisbane terminals, nGen tracks and manages the movement of containers in and out of the terminal. It also operates the automated stacking cranes and the automated processing of truck manifests at the gates.
Further along the auto track, we go to Hamburg, where HHLA Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA) where fully automatic handling of containers begins with the lowering of a box on one of the 65 driverless automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which then finds its way to its destination conveyed by radio waves while be being watched by a global positioning system (GPS).
The AGV parks in front of one of the 26 camp blocks, where a pair of gantry cranes (double rail mounted gantries – DRMG) unloads the container for temporary storage.
Each block covers 10 rows of 37 TEU places, at each place can stack four – in the external rows five – containers. The DRMG consists of two independent cranes, so that the sea-side with the AGV and the opposite side with the trucks can be served simultaneously.
Because of their different sizes, two cranes can work simultaneously over the entire block with the smaller one working under the larger one.
If the container is to be carried on by truck, it remains on the chassis. In the case of a rail transport, it is led to the station, where it is loaded there by one of the three manual railway cranes.
Furthest along, has to be APM Terminals in Rotterdam with its cutting edge Maasvlakte II that says it will improve vessel productivity by 40 per cent.
One benefit of automation is improved gate flow. Stacks are arrayed at right angles to the berthed ship so truckers simply drive a short way to the stack. Auto stacking cranes lift the desired box onto the truck chassis. Average gate in and out time averages 30 minutes at Rotterdam. At many US ports, in and outs average 45 minutes to an hour.
Many feel there has been too much focus on vessel productivity and not enough on dockside yard and truck operations. The benefits for truckers, for example, are vital because automation enables the terminal to mix laden import boxes, laden exports, and empties in the same stack.
For truckers, to drop off an empty and take delivery of an import at the same time is manna from heaven, and automated terminal operations hold the promise of such an outcome as a matter of course. One day truckers can expect to deliver and take away boxes in the course of one visit rather like taxi drivers drop off and collect passengers during one visit to the airport.
To achieve this Dutch treat, APMT insists truckers file their documentation through a single electronic portal and make an appointment. If a trucker misses the two-hour window, he goes offline to make a new one.
IHS Media reports American truckers don’t like these appointments because terminal congestion, weather or road traffic makes them hard to keep. But APMT operations chief Henk De Groot, says he has succeeded in maintaining almost 100 per cent compliance among truckers, who get the promised rapid turn times in exchange.
Maasvlakte II’s automated quay crane operations make it different from the Hamburg operations. While a skilled docker can do 30 container moves an hour, that tends to be his best time and he cannot maintain it over a shift. The automated crane can do it 24/7. There are other advantages too. The automated crane operator oversees the operation in front of a computer; his vision is not obscured by wind, rain or fog.
Moreover, Maasvlakte II’s quay cranes have the main hoist, which works over the vessel and lowers the spreader. Once the box is secured, it is then lifted from the ship and moved a short distance to an elevated platform dockside. The main hoist is then free to return to the ship while a second hoist put the box on an AGV and it scoots off doing much the same as it did in the Hamburg operation.
This two-stage operation allows each hoist to move independently without having to wait for the other to make the next move. That also permits the dockside hoist feeding the AGVs without interfering with the ship hoist, which has different work timing.
Nor must the AGV wait for the automated stacking crane to retrieve the container before it sets off again to fetch a new box, because it is now free to return to the quay. The important idea here is the decoupling these actions into discrete operations, accepting that the entire procedure cannot be integrated into a continuous flow, but by creating a system in which bumps can be absorbed without undue congestion appears to be the best result obtainable today.
Stacks are segregated for dispatch by truck, rail and barge, a task now handled by the computer.
But automation is pricey with US estimates running at $300 million to $1.5 billion, depending how automated one wants to be. With Maasvlakte II coming in at $535 million, it’s not to be undertaken lightly. For starters, mega throughput is a must. One million TEU is considered enough to warrant full treatment.
It’s not just front end cost – pay-back time is reckoned at 10 years. Also it takes months, even years, to work out the bugs. The complexity of different systems talking to each other means many months of working out kinks.
But it can be introduced incrementally as Hutchison and Hamburger Hafen appear to be doing. Labour savings are there and the Port of Los Angeles study reckons that its TraPac terminal will eventually cut jobs 40 to 50 per cent.
Automated terminals get a boost in capacity. LA’s TraPac at full build-out will handle two million TEU a year. The Middle Harbour terminal in Long Beach is being automated to handle three million TEU.
While timing remains uncertain, the way ahead is becoming clearer. Mega ships in mega alliances dumping mega loads at mega ports introduce a demand for ways to be found to cope with the inflow and outflow. At the moment, that way appears to be dockside automation – the fuller, the better.
This will – eventually – lower operating costs, which in turn will attract business from other terminals, forcing them to either lower their costs through automation, or to sell out to those that can.
Image: Container handling at the Euromax terminal in th Port of Rottterdam (credit: PortPictures.nl)
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