Terminal Automation: Past, present, and future innovation

The maritime industry is going through a huge period of technological change. Whether it’s a drive to gain an operational edge or to be more sustainable, the way ports and terminals operate is evolving at incredible speed.


One such technological advancement is automation. It’s possibly the biggest change to face terminals in our generation. What does it really mean for the industry though?


To answer this question we bought together three experts to look not just towards the future, but to consider what’s driven it, and where we stand today.


Our webinar panel included Timo Alho, VP Terminal Design, from the industry’s top terminal automation and eco-efficient container handling company, Kalmar. Chief Technical Officer Luis Canto of MMC Corporation, a leading terminal operator with operations spanning Asia and the Middle East. Plus Yuli Grig, Founder & Director of Midstream Lighting, the global authority in maritime lighting for ports, terminals, and mobile equipment.


Here’s an overview of what they discussed.


What does terminal automation mean to you?


It’s probably not surprising that Luis and Timo shared similar views here on the nature and benefits of automation to the industry. How it, through a combination of hard and software, can enable processes to run by themselves – and save costs, increase productivity, improve safety, etc.


As a supplier, however, whilst Yuli agreed with them on what automation means, he highlighted the challenges it presents suppliers, For example, there’s no need for floodlighting in a totally automated port. So, suppliers need to work to turn these challenges into opportunities if they’re to maintain a place in the terminals of tomorrow.


What’s the state of play with fully/semi-automated terminals today?


Take-up of full and semi-automation to date has been relatively slow Timo pointed out. The fact that only around 60 of the 1,500 terminals worldwide are using unmanned crane equipment shows this. As a terminal operator, Luis highlighted how automation at existing ports can be problematic, hence the slow uptake. Ports can’t just close down. They have to stay working which has made it difficult for them to make such sweeping changes in existing facilities. They’ve also had to face the concerns, and in some cases actions, of unions and those opposed to automation.


What has been the biggest advance in the last ten years?


When looking at this aspect of automation, there was a broad consensus amongst the panel. Automation isn’t seen as ‘an experiment’ or ‘nice to have’ any longer. It’s become an essential requirement that terminals need to develop to stay competitive as Timo explained.


Were there any emerging trends that just didn’t happen?


The panel agreed that the important thing here wasn’t to consider what didn’t happen. Rather, it’s the aspects that have slowed down innovation and the adoption of automation that need to be looked at. Digitalisation was, and to some extent still is, hampered by communication technologies, for example.


Comparing it to the LED lighting industry, Yuli raised an important point on how terminals should have been looking at the potential ‘missed opportunity’ costs on the bottom line. Not only that, they’ve lost potential competitive advantages by not driving the adoption of new technologies earlier.


Where has automation had the biggest impact over the last decade?


From improvements in safety and cost savings and more, the benefits of automation in the industry are widely known and accepted. Are there more though? The panel agreed there are and discussed the lesser-known and equally important ones automation can bring. Benefits such as the centralisation of all data and controls into one area, and even extending the lifetime of operational equipment.


What’s the biggest challenge to implementing automation today?


Whist the costs of implementing a lot of automation solutions have come down, Luis, Timo, and Yuli all agreed that other challenges are still out there. For example, in a concession-led industry, why should a terminal invest £millions if it doesn’t know it will benefit from it in the coming years? Some ports are also delaying implementing fully automated systems because of concerns over things like ‘vendor lock-in’ and the issues they can present.


Is sustainability a driver on the road map to automation?


It may not be a primary driver like costs and ROI, but sustainability is definitely moving up the agenda. The panel agreed that the question they face as a group is ‘How to solidify sustainability as a vital driver?’. Luis suggested that working more closely to gain rebates and incentives available for sustainable projects will be one way to do this.


Looking to the future, and using COVID-19 as an example, how can automation make ports more resilient in the future?


As a ‘people-intensive’ industry, automation obviously isn’t at a level yet to have been able to protect terminals from the current pandemic. It will give ports the ability to cope with things like this in the future though. Luis and Timo both agreed it’s been a ‘wake-up call’ for terminals around the world and has made them appreciate the benefits automation can bring even more.


People vs machines? How will the industry face this difficult question?


This is a huge question. The maritime workplace is changing, as it is in many markets. On the one hand, there’s pressure from unions and governments to maintain jobs. On the other, terminals are having difficulties finding new people who want to work in such challenging environments. Then they have their duty to improve staff safety – a recognised benefit of automation. Is there a solution? The panel gave their views on the role automation can play in providing it.


What is the most exciting thing coming down the pipeline?


Total automation – even to the point of captain-less ships. A balanced coalition between humans and machines. The ability to foresee issues and solve them before they become major problems.

These were just some of the things our panel had on their wish lists.

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