Since the 1990s, there has been a push for the automation and streamlining of ports. Why is container terminal automation so critical?
The primary operations of a container port involve loading and unloading ship cargo and transferring them to various freight transportation services. Inefficiencies within these systems cost ports and carriers $17 billion every year.
Automation in container terminals vastly improves the efficiency of these processes, reducing turnaround times and costs.
Unfortunately, terminal automation has evolved at a very slow pace. In 2021, only about 4% of total container capacity was been fully or partially automated.
What are the main reasons for this? And how can terminals effectively be automated to enhance port efficiency? Let’s take a closer look.
Operations in container terminals have been the easiest to automate–almost all fully automated port facilities are container terminals.
A port terminal can be fully- or semi-automated. A fully automated port is one where the stacking yard and horizontal transfers between the quay and the yard are all automated. In a semi-automated terminal, only yard cranes are automated, while manual vehicles are still used for horizontal transport operations.
What does this mean? Let’s break it down further by looking at the elements needed for container terminal automation.
Container yard management involves several processes: scheduling, coordinating, and directing the movement of trucks, shipments, and personnel within the port. Mistakes in any of these processes lead to massive delays and high costs. Automating yard management can significantly reduce human error and increase efficiency.
Another essential aspect of terminal automation involves the automation of horizontal movement. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated straddle carriers (ASCs) move containers back and forth from the quayside while trucks and chassis bring and retrieve containers from the gate side. Automated stacking cranes (ASCs) load containers from both ends without human intervention.
All cargo that enters or leaves a port must pass through a gate where dockworkers check essential data related to the container, such as its condition, weight, type, etc. The truck driver’s information, such as their license number, must be linked to the containers that are being transported.
When carried out manually, these processes can take a long time. In fact, truck drivers in Los Angeles have indicated that the delays are so bad that many have argued in favor of automation.
An automated gate system is critical to reducing processing times. There are many ways to do this. Some ports are equipped with special devices that allow truck drivers to swipe their licenses without getting out of the vehicle. Others rely on optical character recognition or radio frequency identification to quickly capture data about the containers.
Innovation in the trucking industry has also enabled some drivers to use mobile technology to schedule appointments or swap equipment, improving terminal gate access time.
Several other automation processes that aren’t directly linked to terminal automation also offer similar benefits. Automating many aspects of ship operations or warehouse operations can help improve the efficiency of distribution.
Changes in the transportation industry indicate that we may not be too far from automated trucks being a possibility, either.
So, there are three dimensions to terminal automation:
Given that many other industries have embraced automation at a much faster pace, why has terminal automation lagged?
Some reasons include:
A major reason that these hurdles aren’t dealt with head-on is that port authorities don’t fully assess the risks and rewards associated with automating processes.
So, what are the rewards associated with container automation systems?
Increased efficiency: Automation of manual processes decreases turnaround time and costs for port operators and improves the productivity of all workers.
Reduced labor requirements: Automation can take over the manual handling of containers, meaning a port operator will need fewer workers for smooth operations.
More safety: Manual processes increase the risk of accidents and injuries. With automation, health and safety outcomes are vastly improved.
Improved accuracy: A terminal automation system reduces the risk of cargo damage. Better accuracy of container placement benefits port operators and shippers alike.
Reduced congestion: Automation can reduce the number of vehicles required at the port, reducing congestion and improving port efficiency. It also reduces pollution and contributes to sustainability in transportation infrastructure.
Some ports around the world have made strides in automation, improving efficiency and reducing labor costs.
Some prominent examples include:
In the near future, we can expect more success stories to emerge as ports make the move towards complete automation.
Since 2002, MDB Transportation has been witnessing this transformation on the frontlines. As one of the leading freight transportation companies in Los Angeles, offering numerous port services and LCL shipping services, we have kept a close eye on the future of automation and the involvement of cutting-edge technology at container terminals.
Work with MDB Transportation to learn how such innovation drives us!