LONG BEACH, Calif. — The primary reasons for automating U.S. container terminals are to improve vessel and gate productivity and enhance safety, not to reduce longshore jobs, according to an East Coast marine terminal operator.
Shipping lines are determined to enter ever larger vessels into the U.S. trades as they seek to reduce the per-unit costs of carrying containers. These vessels with capacities of 8,000 to 13,000 20-foot container units cost $100 million to $150 million each.
Carriers therefore insist that terminals turn their vessels much faster than U.S. ports have been able to do with their traditional manual operations, James Devine, president and CEO of Global Container Terminal in New York, told The Journal of Commerce’s 13th annual TPM Conference.
To achieve the efficiencies required to work today’s mega-ships, Global intends to increase its crane productivity from an average of 25 moves per hour to 35 to 40 moves per hour, Devine said. Because Global will work four cranes against a ship, total container moves per vessel will increase from 100 to as much as 160 moves per hour, he said.
Global operates a relatively small terminal, given the increasing size of vessels, so it must also increase its throughput per acre in the container yard. U.S. terminal operators have traditionally preferred to store containers on chassis because that reduces the number of touches by longshoremen. Therefore, the labor costs in the yard are also lower.
Big ships require a very dense operation, though, because they discharge several thousand containers in a single call. To handle this surge of traffic, Global will opt for rail-mounted gantry cranes, which can increase density six times to 360 TEUs per acre compared to the container-on-chassis model, Devine said.
TraPac is redeveloping its terminal in Los Angeles to make it one of the most highly automated facilities in North America, said Scott Axelson, vice president of business development. TraPac’s goal is to increase productivity in moving containers from the vessel to the container stacks, and in moving containers from the vessel to the on-dock railyard.
Automating these “horizontal transportation” moves will involve the introduction of automated straddle carriers. These driverless lift machines will pick containers up from their place of rest under the crane and deliver the boxes to the container stacks, a process that Axelson said is “extremely efficient.” Containers will be moved into and out of the stacks through the use of automated stacking cranes.
There is no doubt that automation will eliminate some longshore jobs. However, automation will translate to significantly higher volumes, and higher volumes mean more net jobs even though the per-unit labor requirement is reduced. For example, Orient Overseas Container Line is building a fully automated terminal in Long Beach that will have an annual capacity of 3 million TEUs a year at full build-out.
Just as containerization in 1956 forever changed the waterfront from its roots in the breakbulk era, information technology and automation are significant developments in the continuing evolution of container shipping, said Tony Scioscia, vice president of labor relations at Maersk Agency U.S.A.
The survival of the industry depends upon its ability to adapt to bigger ships, higher volumes and the need for improved productivity. “Unions must deal with technology,” Scioscia said.