CTAC 2021: OCR and gate automation easy wins in brownfield terminal retrofitting

Aerial view large container trucks entering with container of goods through the main entrance gate in the industrial port.

Terminals automating their yard operations should consider smaller investments on features such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and gate automation as early wins in upgrades.

During PTI’s Container Terminal Automation Conference 2021 session Achieving Automation – Retrofitting Automation in Brownfield Terminals’, all experts were unified in highlighting that a port can start small when automating its operations.

Responding to audience questions on which element of a terminal to automate first, Alan Peterson, Industry Segment Leader of Crane Systems at TMEIC Corp, said automation investment at the beginning does not always have to focus on major pieces of equipment such as reachstackers or straddle carriers.

“If you’re not ready to spend big dollars, you can invest in OCRs to read characters on container boxes in the yard. You can automate your gate system. You can bring automation to [administrative] processes that are manual in your terminal,” Peterson said.

OCR and Optical Feature Recognition (OFR) can provide major benefits for terminal operators. AI-based OCR image recognition at a gateway can read container numbers and ISO code, amongst other capabilities. AI-based OFR can recognise cargo classification in addition to other Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGV).

The added automation at gateways and in container identification can dramatically improve truck turnaround time, reduce emissions and relieve congestion in a port complex.

Peterson noted that implementing automation into administrative processes, such as automating staff operations, can help the workforce to look at automation “as a practice, instead of an idea”.

Automate piece by piece

Carlos Lopez Barbera, VP of Product Management, Navis, echoed Peterson’s sentiment that OCR and gate automation are areas where “you do not have to go for the big things” when mulling considerable investment retrofitting your terminal.

“Start simple – you do not have to go for the big things,” Barbera said, “Get your software ready, and then you can start to automate your yard. You can automate one block, or one crane, and roll it out to the rest of the facility.”

Rafiq Swash, Founder of AIDrivers, expanded on Barbera’s point by highlighting that ports can be rational with which areas are in most need of improvement when rolling out automation investment.

“The first step is to find out how you can automate the processes or equipment that do not require changes to infrastructure or end-to-end processes,” he said.

“[This can be] rationalised to one crane or mode of horizontal transport. You can start automating from one, and scale across your yard.”

Rationalisation of yard processes was highlighted by Uno Bryfors, Senior Vice President of ABB Ports.

“We have to look at how complex the terminal process is. Some are straight gateway, some straight transhipment, others are a mix,” he outlined.

“The more processes to be automated, the longer it will take. Brownfield sites are easier [to automate] than some greenfield because there is an existing organisation and existing staff who can be trained.

“The total effort is smaller than having to build from absolute greenfield.”

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