US terminals expected to tailor automation to individual needs

US terminals expected to tailor automation to individual needs

NEWARK, New Jersey — The relentless drive by container lines to reduce their per unit carrying costs through deployment of modern mega-ships means that the automation of marine terminals is inevitable. But each automated terminal will be tailored to the individual needs of the operator based on cost, volume and type of operation.

Terminal operators that choose to automate their facilities do so to reduce operating costs, improve safety, lower emissions, mitigate noise and increase the density of their operations in order to efficiently handle more containers, said Andrew Cairns, the lead transportation planner for the Northeast at AECOM, an engineering frim,  said at JOC Group’s 2nd annual Port Performance-North America conference in Newark, New Jersey.

Cairns said the automation of container terminals began in Europe in 1990, and has been gradually evolving as terminal operators use technology to automate various functions in the terminal environment.

The first automated terminal in the U.S., the APM Terminal in Portsmouth, Virginia, opened in 2007, and is still the most automated facility in this country, said Jack Michael Craig, vice president and head of global operations at APM.

However, the TraPac terminal in Los Angeles this year is completing the first phase of its automation, and the Middle Harbor terminal in Long Beach will open the first phase next summer, and those facilities will feature a greater degree of automation than the Portsmouth terminal.

Automation has become an umbrella term that describes the use of data-capturing devices at terminal gates, remotely-controlled ship-to-shore cranes and yard-stacking cranes, driverless guided vehicles to move containers from the foot of the quay cranes to the stacks and the servicing of trucks at the gateside of the terminal.

Therefore, automation can cost several million dollars, or it can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Many terminals are taking a phased approach to automation, beginning with information technology and data-capture devices such as optical character readers on the quay cranes and RFID readers at the gates.

SSA Marine, for example, several years ago began operating the gate functions for its three Long Beach terminals from a single location several miles away, said Ed DeNike, chief operating officer. This allows SSA to achieve maximum utilization of marine clerks because the clerks are kept busy handling the peaks and valleys of traffic flow that vary from terminal to terminal throughout the day.

SSA took a larger step in automation this month when it  began using laser-guided quay cranes in Long Beach. Each crane is operated remotely by a longshoreman in the terminal’s tower who controls the crane by pushing a button on a console. The laser-guided crane lifts the container and places it precisely on the yard tractor used in horizontal transportation. The crane driver controls the last 30 feet of the descent, and can stop the movement at any time if a problem occurs.

“It will take a different kind of driver who likes video games,” DeNike said.

SSA has worked four ships with the laser guided cranes, achieving what is considered standard productivity of 30 lifts per hour,  but DeNike said that as the terminal and longshoremen become more familiar with the machines, 40 moves per hour will be achievable.

Many vessels in the major east-west trades have capacities ranging from 8,000 to 19,000 20-foot container units, and more than 50 percent of the global order book is now comprised of vessels with capacities of at least 10,000 TEUs, Craig said. Those big ships are also beginning to enter the north-south trades.

The mega-ships must be worked by super-post-Panamax cranes that are much taller, with a longer reach than the previous generation cranes, and this compromises the ability of a longshoreman in the crane cab to operate the crane, Craig said. Therefore, placing the crane driver in the tower, in front of a console, improves the driver’s line of sight compared to being in the crane’s cab “in the dark, with the wind and rain,” he said.

The new APM Maasvlakte II terminal in the Netherlands is highly automated. In addition to positioning the crane drivers in the tower, the terminal features self-guided (driverless) vehicles and automated stacking cranes for horizontal transportation of containers throughout the facility right to the trucks that back into the gate side of the stacks. The delivery of containers to the rail yard is also automated. Since most every function is powered  by electricity or batteries, the terminal is virtually noise-free with significantly reduced emissions, he said.

Global Container Terminal is automating its terminal in New York-New Jersey. In addition to improving the efficiency and safety of its vessel and yard operations, the facility will significantly streamline the gate functions for truckers, said Richard Ceci, vice president of information technology.

Global will use technology and data capture and transmission to automate its in and out gates. The use of technology and a trucker appointment system is expected to reduce the time truckers spend in the mile and one-half in-gate queue from 40 minutes at present to 7.5 minutes, Ceci said.

Gate congestion has been a major factor in driver unrest at ports throughout North America. The automated gate operation is expected to significantly improve the earning capacity of drivers in an industry that is experiencing a dwindling supply of labor, Ceci said

Since the range of options for terminal automation is so extensive, terminals at a number of ports are expected to take advantage of the improvements that technology and automation offer to reduce costs, improve safety and handle much larger container volumes on the limited waterfront space available.

The price associated with various forms of automation, and the container volumes needed to achieve a return on investment, will dictate that each terminal analyzes its business model to choose the options that work best for its operation.

DeNike said that was the principle that guided its choices. “If we are going to automate, we have to make sure it pays for itself,” he said.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo