Source: Adapted from Ricardo Sanchez (2016) Some reflections about the future of ports, CEPAL.
Diffusion of Key Port Terminal Automation Technologies
Port terminals are particularly prone to automation since it provides direct benefits in terms of cost, efficiency, safety and reliability. Since container terminals are handling standard box sizes using standard equipment, they have experienced an ongoing automation. Still, this automation takes place at different rates depending on the technology involved. This rate can in part be explained by a cost / benefit perspective where the least costly and most beneficial technologies will be adopted first. Automation usually involves new terminal developments since there is an opportunity to automate terminal-wide without disrupting exiting operations. As automation gets implemented, they create further pressures to improve productivity of other components to the terminal to keep pace. Eventually, the whole terminal becomes automated. The main types of container port terminal automation in terms of their current level of diffusion include:
  • Automated decision making. Account for the earliest implementations of automation since they improve terminal managerial aspects and the performance of existing assets without automating them. This can involve berth planning where vessels are more effectively assigned and scheduled to use docking and transloading capacity. Stowage and yard planning are also of common use so that the loading and unloading sequence between the ship and the container yard is improved. This includes the stacking and distribution of containers in the storage yard (e.g. piles for imports and exports and even for a specific ship). The management of human resources, such as work shifts, has also been the subject of automation. By 2015, about 40% of the world's container terminals were using a form of automated decision making.
  • Automated gates. Container terminal gates involve several transactions and were thus among the earliest terminal assets to be automated. Automated gate systems are able to identify drivers (registered and issued an identification card), process bill of lading information (and any other documents) electronically, scan and identify containers using optical character recognition or RFID and direct drivers to a designed spot for loading or unloading a container. Appointment systems are also used to improve waiting times at terminals.
  • Automated tracking and tracing. Enables to accurately pinpoint the location of containers and equipment within the terminal. Although global positioning systems can be used, the placement of reference nodes across the terminal provides a higher level level of positioning accuracy. This technology enables a more effective use of terminal equipment and a faster storage and retrieval of containers.
  • Automated yard cranes. Since the stacking of containers in a yard is an asset intensive activity requiring the frequent movement of cranes, there is a high incentive to automate the process. Automated yard cranes are able to automatically store and retrieve containers along a stacking area.
  • Automated horizontal transport. Involves the use of automated guided vehicles (such as automated straddle carriers) to move containers within the terminal. The most common use involves the transfer of containers from pier-side crane operation to yard storage. This is a complex operation due to the high number of container moves, particularly in high throughput terminals.
  • Automated quay cranes. Cranes are usually the most capital intensive superstructure in a port terminal. The growing size of ships has placed pressures to improve ship to shore productivity and automated quay cranes are starting to be introduced. They reduce cycle time, are able to handle up to 4 containers at once and therefore increase the number of movements per hour.
The push towards automation appears to be an irrevocable trend further increasing the capital intensiveness of container terminals. This is likely to further consolidate the competitiveness of the largest terminals able to first invest in automation. If the cost of automation goes down as expected, then it will diffuse into smaller terminals and the competitive advantage of automation will recede. Still, automation creates an asynchronism in terminal operations since it may not implemented at the same rate in terminals being reconverted. For instance, improving gate access may place pressures on yard operations, so careful consideration must be given to the impact of automation on the whole terminal operations. A positive impact of automation concerns safety since they a less prone to accidents with less (or no) workers present. Automated equipment also tends to be electrically powered, reducing local environmental externalities such as pollution and noise.