Emerging Technologies in Transportation Casebook/Automated Ports

Introduction edit

A simple metal box measuring 20 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 8.5 feet tall is the heart of the global economy.  The dimensions give rise to the term Twenty Foot Equivalent Units (TEUs), the basic unit of international trade flow statistics.  A consolidated capacity of 25 million TEUs spread across 5,500 ships[1] carries 80 percent of global trade goods.[2]  First introduced in the 1950s, containerization exploded in the 1990s, fundamentally altering the global economy.  The barrier between exporter and importer shrank as shipping costs evaporated.  Terminals grew rapidly at new facilities built at then-smaller ports, like Savannah, or formerly commodity driven ports, like Los Angeles.  The endless desire for increased throughput in ever more congested ports put automation forward as an avenue to improved efficiency, longer working times, and reduced costs.  

Automation in container terminals is not a new area of technological innovation.  Here it is almost fully mature, widely deployed, and reaching the point of diminished areas of improvement.  The ECT Delta Terminal at Rotterdam was heralded as the first fully automated container port in the world upon opening in 1993.[3] There are almost 60 semi- or fully automated container terminals in the world with seven of them in the United States (US).[4]

Automation technologies available for other types of port operations tend to fall into two categories: shipboard systems to stabilize a tanker during the loading process or automated loading and unloading of bulk commodities, for example, automated discharge systems for coal or iron ore.  Automation in container handling is a growing deployment of a variety of new types of equipment in a largely labor-intensive process.

While these technologies are automatic, they fall into a different range than other emerging technologies.  They do not operate among the general public - restricted to areas occupied only by authorized vehicles and professional, skilled operators.  The US Maritime Administration has largely kept out of the regulatory arena and left matters up to cities and states that operate the ports.[5]

Public Policy Issues edit

Labor relations are the primary policy focus in the US.  Automation represents a serious reduction in the total workforce of a given container facility.  These jobs are highly paid, backed by powerful unions with broad representation at multiple facilities up and down the East and West coasts.

Port Operations Background edit

Container Handling Process edit

Container handling is split into three phases: quayside, yard, and landside. 

The following diagram is a generic outline of terminal layout.

Container Terminal Layout

Port Automation edit

Automation has been applied to most phases and types of operations in container ports.  

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) & Automated Lifting Vehicles (ALVs) edit

AGVs/ALVs resemble large diesel or battery powered wheeled platforms, designed to carry 2 20-foot containers or 1 40 or 45 foot container.[6]  An ALV combines a horizontal vehicle with lifting capabilities to stow containers in storage racks.  Navigation systems for these automated vehicles vary and include embedded guide wires in the pavement, transponder-based reference grids, and satellite guidance.  

Port of Long Beach (POLB) is the only American user, with 102 Konecranes Gottwald AGVs. These use a transponder-based navigation, with a supplemental GPS-based geofenced safety system.[7]

Automated Straddle Carriers (Auto-SCs) & Automated Shuttle Carriers (AShC) edit

Auto-SCs and AShCs are rubber-tired gantry cranes. Like the ALVs, they are horizontal vehicles capable of lifting a container.  Auto-SCs are limited to stacking containers two high, while AShCs can stack four high.  Regardless of reach height, most of their work is moving singular containers around the port.

The POLB Container Terminal and the Port of Los Angeles (POLA)’s TraPac and APMT terminals use the Kalmar Autostrad. Navigation can be either magnetic or radar-based. The magnetic system registers positional data derived from magnets embedded in the pavement alongside an inertial measurement unit. Laser rangefinders assist with obstacle detection and avoidance.[8]

Automated Stacking Cranes (ASC) edit

ASCs come in two variants: Automated Rubber Tired Gantries (ARTGs) and Automated Rail Mounted Gantries (ARMGs).  An ASC may span as many as 12 rows stacked 5 containers high. ARTGs cannot turn and only move forward and backwards, much like rail-restricted ARMGs.  These cranes receive containers from the horizontal vehicles to add to the storage blocks, sort containers in the blocks, and pull containers from storage blocks to transfer to horizontal vehicles.

All seven American automated terminals use ARMGs.[4]  For example, New York/New Jersey’s GCT Bayonne operates 20 Konecranes ARMGs to handle their truck terminal[9] and the Port of Virginia has 116 ARMGs working at the Norfolk International and Virginia International Terminals.[10]

Automated Gate Operations edit

Gate operations can be equipped with systems to automatically direct arriving trucks to the proper location for pick-up or drop-off. Optical character recognition or RFID systems identify an inbound truck or container.  Drivers are directed to the appropriate spot without having to leave the truck or interact with any terminal personnel. Only mis-scanned trucks are directed by personnel for manual sorting.  Positioning inside the loading bay is measured by lasers, indicating the exact position and orientation of the truck, allowing for accurate placement on or removal from road chassis by the ASC.[11]  This technology is ubiquitous, even at fully manual terminals.

Remote Operations edit

Ship to Shore/Quayside Cranes edit

Ship to shore cranes are not automated.  The operator sits in a glass enclosed control station attached to the lifting beam trolley, moves back and forth with the trolley and looks down at the lifting beam and container during the lift process.  It is a highly skilled job paying far higher than average.  For example, the average crane operator at Savannah’s Garden City Terminal is paid more than $100,000 a year in a city where the average wages are around $42,000.[12]  

With remote operations, the operator is moved inside the port’s offices.  An operator at a desk can readily handle two cranes when operating remotely.  While this does not impact efficiency, it does save labor costs.  The current state of technology is not yet sophisticated enough to approach or plan for automating these cranes.

Rail Gantries edit

Rail gantries are used to load and unload railcars and are on parallel tracks running the full length of the railroad terminal.  They are very wide, spanning numerous truck lanes, railroad tracks, and parking spots.  Ports frequently deploy them in teams, with one crane unloading and another loading the same train.  The gantries, due to their size and relatively small numbers, are custom built to the terminal’s layout.

Terminals have been reluctant to explore automating these cranes.  The process requires hands-on intervention to lock and unlock the securing mechanisms between containers and railcars.  Putting a human worker between a container and an automated crane is seen as a safety issue that is not present in other container handling procedures.  Using a human crane operator, including remote operation, is viewed as a safer alternative.

Areas of Growth edit

The bulk of automated terminals are outside of the US.  As the following table shows, a number of large, busy marine terminals present opportunities for automation deployments in the US.[13]  


Considering the top ten busiest container ports in the US, there are ample opportunities for automation growth. The Garden City Terminal in Savannah, for instance, is the busiest single terminal in the US and is entirely manual.  Houston, Oakland, and Charleston are roughly as busy as Virginia and none are automated.  

Smaller facilities may also be interested in automating operations.   Portland (Maine) only sees approximately 7,000 container lifts a year[14] at a compact facility called on infrequently by a single container line.[15]  This could replace highly paid, but lightly used, operators, with self-driving equipment.  It could sidestep potential issues in attracting adequately skilled operators who may be more difficult to find and retain at small terminals.

Economics edit

Role in the Supply Chain edit

McKinsey Container Efficiency

The global economy is entirely dependent on an elaborate supply chain and this dependence is rapidly growing. It is critical that the supply chain is efficient and has built-in slack capacity to accommodate future growth. The still on-going disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate that port congestion at just a handful of terminals has an outsized impact on trade and ultimately the economy[16].

Business Justification edit

Automation can reduce operating expenses by 25 to 55 percent, according to analytical models. Productivity can rise an additional 10 to 35 percent[17]. Upfront costs for port automation are high, with a specific case being the 86 ARMGs Virginia purchased for $670 million in 2017.  For some ports, these could be multi-billion dollar investments. A study by McKinsey & Company determined expected and actual productivity and operating costs for ports. Their data emphasized that not all ports are going to benefit from automation. The returns for some ports will simply not meet the initial costs of the automation[17].

Efficiency edit

The most efficient ports in the world are automated and, importantly, export more than they import[18]. This creates a consistent flow of domestic production inbound to the port for export internationally. These ports, primarily in Asia, see more consistent schedules. For import destinations, such as the US, there are inconsistencies and challenges that make automation more difficult and slow down efficiency. These include the already semi-automatic terminals at POLA/POLB.  These ports deal with large numbers of “exception cases,” which require personnel and decision-makers as the logistics are much more complex.  Automation works most efficiently when a port is a collector and consolidator and less efficiently when a port is a manager and distributor.[19]

Challenges to Implementation edit

Technological Constraints edit

The largest technical constraint for automation is the lack of progress in automating the quayside cranes.  There are physical and procedural challenges that currently prevent automating these cranes.  

In the physical, the ship simply moves too much during the two minute long cycle between lifting containers.  Operating a crane is as much an art as it is science.  Human operators outperform machines when it comes to the required analysis, deduction, and prediction of how to drop or raise the lifting beam and move the trolley forward and backwards relative to the target container sitting in a container cell onboard the ship.

Procedure-wise, there is reluctance on the part of the ports to put humans close to automated systems when it can be avoided.  Part of the lift process requires a person called a lasher, onboard the ship, to be on hand to assist in directing the lifting beam and locking and unlocking containers from the lifting beam.  This is viewed as a dangerous process.  Some lashers even view remotely controlled quayside cranes, which still have a human in control, as more dangerous than ones with the operator directly overhead.[20]  Twistlocks, the device that latch containers to each other or to the lifting beam, do come in an automatic version.  They turn under mechanical pressure, instead of a human moving a control lever.  Replacing all of them on all of the containers in the world would be required before the role of the lasher could be eliminated.

Data Quality edit

Data quality influences the upfront costs of implementing automation through a lack of data standards. Every port is different, and while there might be some standardization, there is limited consistency[17]. For example, the operational data for Abu Dhabi is structured differently than POLB. Every port has to be dealt with individually, based on their own data standards. These inconsistencies prevent the formation of a data pool that can optimize operations and respond to problems.

Lack of standards prevent good organization of data, limit inter-port communication, and lead to misinterpreted data[17]. This puts a drag on efficiency and even poses a challenge for both manual and automated ports. There are opportunities for data infrastructure to reduce data silos and implement a set of standards to improve the efficiency of port operations.

Labor Relations edit

As recently as September 2022, contract negotiations between West Coast shipping companies and labor unions were being held up by the issue of automation. Over 70 shipping companies, who are represented by the Pacific Maritime Association[21], are in favor of automation to stay competitive and keep up with demand. The 22,000 dockworkers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) are protective of their high-paying jobs[21]. This issue has been an ongoing dispute dating back decades to the initial wave of job reductions that came out of containerization in the 1960s.

Heavily automated ports, like the gold standard in Rotterdam, still employ large numbers of people. Those jobs tend to pay less than the specialist crane operators and drivers in manual ports. Jobs in automated facilities are primarily technicians maintaining and managing the automated vehicles[22]. Even with an automated port, there is still need for workers and with that a chance for job transition. These jobs often move people from a more dangerous task to a desk job.  Even so, there are workers that resist this shift.

Currently, POLA/POLB is among the least efficient ports in the world. The Pacific Maritime Association claims automation is necessary to get POLA/POLB running round the clock at maximum capacity and thus keep up with the Asian export ports[21]. While West Coast ports continue to expand and lean into automation, the belief is that more jobs will come with the same benefits for ILWU workers. However, if there are fewer jobs or the jobs move elsewhere, this could be a huge concern for local policymakers. Robots cannot contribute to the local economy as a worker does.

Environmental Impacts edit

Many of the horizontal vehicles employed at non-automated terminals are diesel or diesel-electric powered.  In particular, the bulk of the fleet are hundreds of diesel-powered yard trucks, shuttling containers around on over-the-road chassis.  One company does offer an electric version, but no container port has put it in service yet.[23]

Should a port wish to replace its diesel-powered horizontal vehicles with electric vehicles, the best options for electric are also automated.  The overwhelming majority of electric horizontal vehicles on the market are automated.  One example is the internationally common Konecranes Gottwald AGV.  They are battery-powered, with packs carrying enough of a charge for 12 hours of duty and are hot-swappable.  The battery swap is a five-minute automated process, where the AGV proceeds to a battery swap station, and a robotic system pulls the dead batteries and inserts charged batteries.[6]

If a port is considering large-scale replacement of equipment to achieve zero emission outcomes for their horizontal fleet, the cost opportunity is present to shift to automated vehicles.

The Future of Automated Ports edit

Artificial Intelligence edit

Advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) could supplant human decision-making, reduce human errors, and optimize operations. AI will need data built on a decision-making support system based on a predictive model of behavior[24]. Ports at Hamburg, Rotterdam, and Singapore have begun using AI to improve their business process operations. The next step will be developing AI capable of managing the automated vehicles themselves to replace decision making roles of human operators.

Predictive AI may also be the key to automating quayside gantry cranes.  Intelligent systems, combined with sensors monitoring ship motion, could be able to make the same types of decisions and reactions that human operators must make to safely engage containers with the target ship.

Dynamic Scheduling edit

Real-time berth planning, predictive maintenance for key assets, automated yard planning, and demand planning all benefit from dynamic scheduling[17]. A dynamic optimization algorithm works in conjunction with these inputs to optimize scheduling and generate path schemes for automated guided vehicles[24]. The output of these algorithms will reduce conflicts between vehicles on paths and arrivals at crane points, therefore reducing costs and slow downs.

Analysis and Conclusions edit

The difference between expected improvements and real improvements is seemingly counterintuitive.  In most fields, replacing humans with machines allows increased productivity as processes occur at faster rates, with consistent process times, less lag between processes, and longer overall working periods.  However, the actual driver of process time in container handling is the decision-making process and handling exception cases.  This is a task better suited for humans, as machines currently lack the ability to reason and predict in such a way that human operators can.  It also explains the difference between export and import facilities.  Imports are far less regular processes and require far more exception cases that require impromptu decisions about routing and processing a container.  If this cannot be automated, then there is no efficiency benefit.  Barring massive improvements in AI, the exception case handling and the predictive role of humans in handling quayside cranes are firmly on the side of manual processes.  

This appears to indicate that the “semi-automatic” facility is the port of the future.  Human driven quayside cranes will feed the automatic horizontal vehicles, while the exceptions will need human intervention into the routing of automated vehicles.  Environmental regulation may prove a larger influence.  As older vehicles and diesel vehicles are phased out for electric, the available replacements are increasingly going to be automated vehicles.  Automation may take over through attrition alone.

Automation is not exactly an emerging technology.  It is already deployed at dozens of container terminals worldwide.  In the US, deployment has lagged as legacy manual processes are defended by robust unions that are understandably protective of their jobs.  The combination of labor protection and the efficiency challenges for importers will remain major impediments to further American implementation.  As for the time being, the primary avenue that will drive automation may, in fact, be emissions controls, as automation and electrification are linked through vehicle availability.

Discussion Questions edit

  • Is increasing the deployments of automated technologies at marginal changes in efficiency, but at large labor reductions, a rational decision? What about emissions reductions?
  • Does it seem reasonable that AI improvements could complete the automation process?
  • Is the reasoning behind “exporters benefit from automation and importers benefit from manual” sound?

Additional Reading edit

  • Chu, Fox, et al. “The Future of Port Automation.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 4 Dec. 2018, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/travel-logistics-and-infrastructure/our-insights/the-future-of-automated-ports.
  • Gardner, Nic. “A Brief Guide to Container Terminal Automation.” Thetius, 28 Oct. 2020, https://thetius.com/a-brief-guide-to-container-terminal-automation/.
  • Levinson, Marc. The Box. Princeton University Press, 2016.
  • Martín-Soberón, Ana María, et al. “Automation in Port Container Terminals.” Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier BV, Dec. 2014, pp. 195–204. Crossref, doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.12.131.
  • Musser, Lori. “Not Your Father’s Cranes and Equipment – AAPA Seaports.” AAPA Seaports, 5 Nov. 2019, https://www.aapaseaports.com/index.php/2019/11/05/not-your-fathers-cranes-and-equipment/.
  • Morley, Hugh. “Longshoremen Labor Contract: Tentative ILA-USMX Master Contract Has Terminal Automation Ban.” Container Shipping and Trade News and Analysis, 4 Aug. 2018, https://www.joc.com/port-news/longshoreman-labor/international-longshoremen%E2%80%99s-association/tentative-ila-usmx-master-contract-has-terminal-automation-ban_20180814.html.
  • Swash, Rafiq. “Port Automation: The Route to the Future.” Port Technology International, 25 Mar. 2021, https://www.porttechnology.org/technical-papers/port-automation-the-route-to-the-future/
  • Wong, Sylvia, and Evan Crawford. “Case Study: Optimizing Trapac.” Port Technology International, 26 Apr. 2019, https://www.porttechnology.org/technical-papers/case_study_optimizing_trapac/.

References edit

  1. https://www.il2000.com/blog/lessons-we-can-learn-from-the-changing-lumber-industry-0
  2. https://www.imf.org/en/Blogs/Articles/2022/03/28/how-soaring-shipping-costs-raise-prices-around-the-world
  3. https://myservices.ect.nl/Terminals/rotterdamterminals/deltaterminal/Pages/ProvenTechnology.aspx
  4. a b https://www.itf-oecd.org/sites/default/files/docs/container-port-automation.pdf
  5. https://www.joc.com/port-news/terminal-operators/marad%E2%80%99s-port-automation-query-draws-tepid-response_20190903.html
  6. a b https://www.porttechnology.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/PTI52-14.pdf
  7. https://www.konecranes.com/press/releases/2020/konecranes-to-deliver-fleet-of-agvs-to-long-beach-container-terminal
  8. https://www.kalmarusa.com/equipment-services/straddle-carriers/autostrad/
  9. https://globalterminalsbayonne.com/#technology
  10. https://ajot.com/news/konecranes-delivers-three-more-rail-mounted-gantry-cranes-to-port-of-virginia
  11. https://www.porttechnology.org/news/ctac-2021-ocr-and-gate-automation-easy-wins-in-brownfield-terminal-retrofitting/.
  12. https://www.savannahnow.com/story/news/2021/08/25/georgia-ports-authority-employees-regularly-make-more-than-90-thousand/8248420002/
  13. https://usace.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16021coll2/id/7439
  14. https://usace.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16021coll2/id/7439
  15. https://www.pressherald.com/2021/11/13/amid-chaos-at-other-ports-portlands-container-terminal-is-on-track-for-its-busiest-year-ever/
  16. https://www.ecb.europa.eu/pub/economic-bulletin/focus/2022/html/ecb.ebbox202108_01~e8ceebe51f.en.html
  17. a b c d e https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/travel-logistics-and-infrastructure/our-insights/the-future-of-automated-ports
  18. https://blogs.worldbank.org/transport/digital-improvements-can-make-or-break-ports
  19. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057%2Fs41278-017-0070-z
  20. https://www.worldcargonews.com/in-depth/in-depth/automation-moves-to-the-quayside
  21. a b c https://www.npr.org/2022/09/11/1121243540/supply-chain-dockworkers-ilwu-union-workers-automation
  22. https://www.dw.com/en/us-labor-dispute-dock-workers-say-no-to-port-automation/a-62973261
  23. https://orangeev.com/deployed-markets/
  24. a b https://www.porttechnology.org/news/how-can-ports-use-artificial-intelligence/