Port Automation: Smart, Smarter, Smartest!

The global container handing equipment fleet is getting smarter as port operators apply more sophisticated IT in their operations. The amount of intelligence on both manned cranes as well as unmanned equipment is increasing in a quest for improved safety, productivity and eco-efficiency. As part of the evolution, equipment is becoming more and more unmanned.

In light of a rising percentage of “smart” ports globally, World Maritime News spoke with the head of Global Automation Sales at Konecranes Port Cranes, Thomas Gylling, on the topic to learn more about the challenges ports all around the world encounter on the road to becoming fully automated.

As disclosed by Gylling, currently there are about thirty container terminals globally that are referred to as “automated terminals”. In these terminals, the degree of automation ranges from unmanned yard cranes to unmanned horizontal transportation, and both. The majority of the roughly 2,000 container terminals are however running with manned equipment.

“Conclusively, majority of the ports are already smart, and becoming smarter all the time,” Gylling said.

WMN: Geographically speaking which regions/countries are investing the most in this type of equipment? Based on your experience so far, where do you see the biggest prospect for growth?

Gylling: The global market has slowed down in many areas, but not everywhere. In recent years, growth has occurred in the United States and in areas like West Africa. Some major investments have been made in South East Asia, particularly in Indonesia. The European market has been very challenging for quite a time, with a modest amount of investment.

The widening of the Panama Canal will change the competitive positioning of the ports at U.S. East and West Coast as well as in the Gulf area.

United States and areas like West Africa have had the greatest growth in recent years

WMN: In your Annual Report from 2015 you indicated that despite the lack of global container throughput the demand for yard cranes was robust. Going forward, do you see the container shipping industry downturn affect port operators’ willingness to invest in automation and port equipment in general?

Gylling: Investments in container handling will continue despite temporarily declined growth in container traffic. The competitive landscape is tough, which means that ports need to develop constantly and investigate new technologies and concepts to stay competitive.

WMN: Seeing that there is an increasing number of mega ships and not enough ports that could handle them, what will be the role of automation in the upcoming period?

Gylling: As the container ships get bigger, container handling systems will have to become more efficient. Automation offers more stable container handling performance, and much greater predictability because the behavior of container handling equipment is controlled by a computer. This enables more accurate planning and execution, which is a paramount when servicing bigger vessels.

WMN: Equipped with giant robots, ports are expected to boost their efficiency, but how safe is this equipment in general?

Gylling: When automation is designed, safety has to be one of the main drivers. Smart design is always built on safety, keeping in mind the interaction between humans and machines. As with factory automation, the container handling process is analyzed, clarified and, where necessary, improved. The outcome is a clearer and safer process, accurate process control, and reliable data gathering and modelling capabilities.

WMN: In your opinion, how will port automation affect the human factor given the current situation in some European ports where hundreds of jobs are at stake?

Gylling: I believe that the roles of the people in the terminal will be even more important as the more automation is being deployed. Remote operation is currently establishing itself as a modern, ergonomic way of operating. Working from a remote control center offers better working environment for the operators. Skilled operators and people that have a wider understanding of the process will be needed even more in ports, not to mention skilled maintenance personnel. New skills in IT and within analytical trouble shooting is something that the automated terminals need more than the conventional ones.

WMN: How do you see the technological evolution of port equipment and in which segment is there the biggest room for improvement?

Gylling: Practically all port equipment design today is done based on manned operations design criteria. Much of the unmanned equipment one can see in ports is designed considering a human operator on-board.

In my opinion, the full benefits of designing port lifting equipment from the beginning as unmanned equipment have not been unleashed. As remote operation becomes more popular, the container handling equipment can be designed without considering the well-being of onboard operators. There is a huge potential to design faster and lighter equipment.

With the Industrial Internet, the use of big data is a hot topic these days, with all the potential it can offer. In ports, the lifting equipment is at the heart of the process – any failure here has an immediate negative effect on container traffic in the terminal. Downtime that occurs during container ship loading or unloading is particularly damaging to the port. Intelligent algorithms that can predict equipment behavior that enables prevention of break downs and down time has tremendous potential to take container terminal performance to the next level.

WMN: Which direction do you see investors take in the future regarding port automation? When can we expect the majority of world’s ports to become smart?

Gylling: Port automation is, in comparison to other industries such as manufacturing, still in the very beginning of the automation era. Only 1.5% of the terminals are automated today, which is quite a modest figure considering that the automation era in container handling started at ECT Delta terminal in 1993. That is 23 years ago. Certainly, automation is a megatrend that will continue to grow, and I will not be surprised if the pace picks up since more entry-level automation options are emerging all the time.

World Maritime News Staff; Image Courtesy: Konecranes

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