Automation of marine terminals is seen as an expensive solution, but in the long run will provide a consistent level of cargo-handling performance that is maintained 24/7.
Automated stacking cranes, automated ground transportation, computer-driven operating systems while available for the past 20 years, has made limited gains with terminals. 94 percent of all container terminals worldwide are still a manual operation. Only 4 percent are semi-automated, and 2 percent are fully automated.
The future will see fewer carriers that operate larger ships to make calls at sophisticated and automated terminals. Felix Kasiske, partner at Hamburg Port Consulting while speaking at the recent Port Performance conference said, “Only state-of-the-art terminals will have a chance to serve as ‘backbone’ facilities. Technology is imperative”. Ports not making the cut, will be designated for smaller vessels operating outside of the major east-west trade lanes.
Automation will allow for terminal operators to work around the clock, with an operating system directing the machines where to go and what to do. Per Rich Ceci, a Senior Vice President with Virginia International Terminals, “You can clear the container yard at night and put the containers in the optimal space, almost for free”. Mr. Ceci went on to say, “Historically, there has been too much focus on vessel productivity, if you separate ship-to-shore and gate, you get a fantastically efficient operation”.
Automation also provides the advantage of a significantly safer operation as there is little to no interaction between workers and machines. With the automation, a terminal is close to 100 percent electrified, thereby greatly reducing the environmental impact.
Truckers benefit also with the automation, as it enables the terminal to mix loaded import, loaded export, and empty containers in the same stack. The trucker has the ability of a “dual transaction”, they can drop off an empty and take delivery of an import load all at the same location.
The slow rate of automation by the terminals is due to the roughly 10 years it may take for payback on the investment. Infrastructure costs for automated terminals are approximately two times those at a conventional terminal, with information technology costs at five times the cost of a conventional terminal.
Labor, for obvious reasons has also pushed back on automation. Joe Gasperov, Vice President of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 in Southern California, while speaking at the Port Performance conference said that he can find nothing good in automation, as it eliminates marine clerk jobs and general longshore jobs.