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Container Terminal Retrofits…What’s Holding You Back?

By: / Sat Dec 07 02:46:34 GMT 2019

Automation will continue to be a buzzword at ports and container terminals globally heading into 2020 as they continue their path toward technological advancement at an increasingly rapid rate. However, when looking at the industry, not every container terminal has the luxury to build their facility and operations from scratch or go with a big bang approach. In fact, we have seen that full-scale automation has not always been the best solution for every port or terminal that has made the investment. So, how do we pace automation in a way that simplifies adoption for existing terminals that have the need to protect their existing business and customers, and at the same time, want to advance and apply new technologies to remain competitive in the long run? Designing solutions to enable a stepwise approach to automation can help significantly by reducing risk and upfront cost.

If low or slow adoption seems to be a problem, finding and removing friction might help accelerate the process. Adoption plays a significant role when coming up with strategies to accelerate time to value and retrofitting may be the solution these terminals are looking for. By allowing terminals to reuse the existing infrastructure and providing options to modernize equipment at their own pace, we can significantly shorten the time required to bring an automated terminal to its full potential.

Of the 44 automated containers terminals already in operation, almost all have been developed as new projects, with a few exceptions such as HHLA in Hamburg and Tianjin, which successfully automated 31 of its rail-mounted gantry cranes at Five Continents International Container Terminal earlier this year. However, the costs associated with greenfield automation and the implementation of new equipment remains quite high which is why we expect to see many larger facilities turn their attention to brownfield automation and some level of retrofitting in the years ahead. This is supported by a recent McKinsey survey that found that brownfield projects are likely to gain momentum, with more than half of the participants expecting at least 50 percent of the top 50 ports to initiate retrofitting plans or to add automated equipment during the next five years.

Retrofitting strategies and technology allow a terminal’s existing equipment to be automated or semi-automated. Let’s name a few examples of technologies that follow this design pattern:
  • Retrofitting automation into existing yard cranes, such RTGs or RMGs, allow crane drivers to operate the equipment remotely, in a much safer environment and manage several cranes at the same time. They can be an automated one at the time and they can coexist with conventional cranes. This avoids disruptions in operations and reduces the risk of the implementation significantly.
  • A similar approach can be applied to horizontal transport. Autonomous trucks also enable a step-wise approach to automation since they can coexist with the existing fleet of manned vehicles, as opposed to other existing technologies in the market, such automated guided vehicles (AGV), that only operates in areas fully dedicated to automated equipment due safety reasons. This enables a container terminal to incrementally add automated equipment to their fleets, at their own pace and manage the associated risk.
  • Unleashing data and information can make a significant impact as well. Cloud computing and artificial intelligence can simplify jobs by processing data and presenting choices and insights to people in a user-friendly way. Equipment drivers have now the ability to operate the equipment remotely, which gives them access to more insights to drive better decision making and efficiency.   

RTG terminals seem to be the best candidates to apply retrofitting strategies. Approximately 60% of the world’s container terminals use RTGs. It is the most common choice for container stacking at terminals with more than 8000 RTGs globally. This is due its high-capacity stacking, low infrastructure and flexibility and it fits both transshipment and import/export operations as well as intermodal terminals. 

The appetite for automation used to be highly correlated to labor cost. However, this no longer seems to be the case as there is a strong interest in RTG automation in regions like Greater China and Middle East where the labor cost is not a strong driver for automation. Other factors such safety, operational consistency and productivity seem to play a more important role in the decision making. China also offers one of the first examples of successful implementations of this new approach to automation.

While the technology to retrofit container terminals is quickly evolving, this concept is yet to be proven at scale. Automating existing facilities requires tight coordination from the implementation point of view. There is new technology applied to the yard cranes, the horizontal transport and interchange areas. The terminal operating system (TOS) also needs to enable this transformation by supporting manual and automated operations at the same time. But overall, still the most important factor might be the talent transformation. People’s roles need to inevitably evolve to support this transformation.

Ultimately, to make this possible, all the relevant players in the industry need to come together and push in the same direction. As I mentioned in my previous blog, designing for adoption is key to make automation a success and this is even more important when retrofitting an existing business. Equipment manufacturers, software vendors and terminal operators need to design solutions where existing and new technologies can coexist and plan a transition to enable our talent to evolve into the future needs of the business.


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