Concepts on automation and optimisation for container terminals

Different definitions exist for automation on container terminals. Each definition contains associated benefits and risks, costs and profits. In the various definitions, a common factor is that automation does not necessarily mean the use of robots or unmanned machines. Observing of a great numbers of terminals, in all parts of the world, clearly shows a common characteristic: each and every terminal wants to make efficient use of its resources, and of course at the same time provide best in class performance and service to its customers.

  • Space: terminals can not expand and grow indefinitely. Terminals do not have additional contiguous space available.
  • Time, performance: Contracts do include time constraints, and terminal need to be flexible in reacting to changing circumstances and demands.
  • People: terminals do not have an unlimited number of skilled, trained and experienced workers available at any point in time, unless carefully planned.
  • Equipment: terminals do not have unlimited access to all the equipment they need at any point in time. It is usually not possible to add machines on the fly.

Various areas on a terminal can be automated. Moreover, the concepts for automation and optimisation that do apply to traditional manned terminals do apply in the same way for unmanned, robotized terminals.

  • Administration: this is the area that seems to be the most obvious and easy to automate: automatically enter orders and bookings into a database system. Provided the agents and shipping lines send these data in an electronic format, this is indeed the case. Prerequisite is that a well defined communication protocol is in place and that both sender and receiver consequently use this protocol. The face of a terminal towards the outside world is its communication interface. It is therefore a must for a terminal to be able to use a flexible and accurate EDI tool, which can be tuned to meet the requirements of shipping lines and agents.
  • Gate handling: in the market several proven solutions exist to automate the gate process. Suppliers such as Visy oy, Camco, High Tech solutions… provide and install systems that can automatically read containers numbers, Iso codes and license plates of trucks and containers entering or leaving the terminal. TOS suppliers provide interfaces to integrate these systems into their solutions.
  • Advanced real-time vessel planning: traditional automated vessel planning assigns containers to vessel slots, taking into account:
    • the positions occupied by “remain on board containers”
    • the positions that will be freed up during the discharge process
    •  the directives given by the shipping lines (prestow information) and,
    • The positions on the yard of containers to be loaded.

The result of traditional automated vessel planning is a work queue containing a sequence of moves to bring containers from the yard to the quay cranes, assigned during the planning process. This work queue will be evaluated in real-time during the actual operations, and moves will be assigned to transporters or container handling equipment to guarantee a smooth flow of containers to the quay crane, following the rhythm of the QC. The objective of advanced real-time vessel planning goes one step further: containers will be assigned during vessel slots during the operations. For the moment there is however a limiting factor: a number of vessel captains do want to know exactly, before operations start, where individual containers will be loaded. In addition to that there are discussions on going about the weight of containers.

  • Automated stacking: by automated stacking the use of unmanned stacking cranes is understood. Examples in use are unmanned RMGs and overhead bridge cranes. Instead of sending an instruction to a driver of a traditional RMG, by means of a radio data terminal, an instruction is sent to a machine interface. The machine logic controls the movement of the machine. The principles in use to plan the stacking of containers on traditional terminal do also apply to unmanned machines. These types of machines do offer advantages over traditional machines, in the sense that these machines can work at all times. This allows e.g. automatic house keeping during idle times.
  • Automated horizontal transport: whereas the actual driving of automated stacking machines is easier to control, automation of the horizontal transport is more difficult to realize. The flexible and adapting human brain needs to be replaced by systems actually driving machines, looking at interfering traffic, having to cope with deadlock avoidance…

No matter how far automation goes, flexibility may never be forgotten. Flexibility  means the ability to recognise changing situations, and to react accordingly, in order to keep the customer satisfied.This really highlights a basic characteristic of terminal operations: the ever-changing environment needing real-time reactions and decisions.

Equally important when considering automation is the fact that choosing a conceptual design, automatically means that one has to accept the limitations of the design, the constraints. When building a terminal, one chooses a layout with its inherent constraints. An efficient and proven terminal operating system (TOS) provides the tool to optimise the use of the resources inherent to the concept that a terminal chooses.

The TOS has an overview of all operations. This is extremely important, since optimisation of sub processes does not necessarily lead to the optimisation of the overall process. Take for example gate automation: an automated gate can handle between 200 and 450 trucks per hour per lane. If the next steps in the process are not optimized, one understands immediately that the automated gate system does not optimize the overall process, but creates congestion of trucks on the yard. RBS focuses on the coding of terminal business processes into efficient software tools to provide terminal operators with a means to optimally plan, manage and control all available resources.

  • All features developed for traditional operations do also apply to robotised terminals
  • Sub processes can be optimised, but do not necessarily lead to total and overall optimisation
  • The total picture, showing all interactions, is required
  • The real-time aspect should never be forgotten
  • Small terminals or big terminals, manned or unmanned face the same challenges
  • The human element is and remains a key factor in setting the business rules, which a system should follow.
  • The TOS needs to be tuneable to sustain a large variety of business rules.

Do not hesitate to contact us to discuss automation and optimisation challenges and opportunities for your particular way of operating your terminal.

The author, Nico Berx, is an experienced ports and terminals expert with over 20 years of experience supporting and advising ports and terminals worldwide. Nico acts as sales manager for RBS EMEA, a leading TOS supplier. Develops the business for Global Port Training, a Belgian company specialised in the optimisation of processes on all types of terminals, the training of blue collar labour, and quality improvements on all types of terminals. As a consultant to the industry, Nico is involved in design, process optimisation and technology projects.