While ports and terminals are beginning to advance technologically at a much faster rate, the market for retrofitting and reusing existing solutions could also present a way forward.
The costs associated with greenfield automation and projects which require the implementation of new equipment are often extremely high, and a question must be asked as to what level of automation will deliver a return on investment (ROI).
Fortunately, for port and terminal operators, there is a potential remedy to this situation.
Whether the aim is to improve operational performance, transition to a more efficient type of power supply, or to simply repurpose older machines, the retrofit market offers businesses a range of options.
With larger facilities more likely to pursue brownfield automation and some level of retrofitting – a process that still comes with its share of challenges and difficulties – this market may represent the future of the maritime supply chain.
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“Most of the 44 automated container terminals already in operation around the world,” according to Drewry’s Neil Davidson, “have been developed as new projects” and “built from scratch”. Yet retrofit automation is coming to prominence as an alternative for container terminals.
Discussing the subject in an exclusive technical paper for Port Technology, the senior analyst reveals that an increasing number of terminals and operators are beginning to embrace the potential of retrofitting and reusing solutions as a more cost-effective way of delivering performance, including Los Angeles’ TraPac terminal and the Burchardkai Terminal in Hamburg.
Neil Davidson, of Drewry, discusses retrofit terminal automation in a recent Port Technology technical paper
The latter, which was opened around fifty years ago, is the oldest container handling facility in the Port of Hamburg, yet it has stood the test of time by modernizing over the decades and gradually adjusting its operations to incorporate semi-automation.
The increasing tendency of operators to optimize what they currently have, instead of laying out huge amounts of investment on something new and uncertain, may seem like an indicator of the industry’s conservatism and resistance to change, but there are major gains to be earned from this approach.
The Burchardkai Terminal in Hamburg, Germany
Benefits and Challenges
Although big risks can reap great rewards, this has not been the case for every port or terminal investing in automation. A safer and cheaper choice, but one which could also pay off very quickly, is to retrofit and reuse.
A key advantage is the specificity of the process. Some facilities may not need to upgrade every aspect of their operations in one sweeping transition to remain competitive, preferring a more targeted strategy that boosts the efficiency of individual elements.
There is also the matter of employment in an era of increasing automation, a subject Port Technology covered in a recent insight.
Implementing full automation could see jobs disappear very rapidly, while a more piecemeal approach would give the workforce time to adjust, retrain or find new roles within the port or terminal environment.
Timo Lehto, Jari Hamalainen and Heimo Poutanen, Kalmar, discuss terminal automation in a recent Port Technology technical paper
Despite a clear upside to optimizing what is already in place, there are challenges to be overcome in much the same way as any other greenfield or new-build project.
For ports and terminals attempting to modernize and retrofit while maintaining the productivity of their operations, it is possible that brownfield initiatives could create a certain amount of disruption.
Davidson has also commented that “if the terminal is already highly utilized this is going to be more difficult than if it were at a lower utilization”, as this situation provides less room to manoeuvre. The extent of the challenge also “varies according to the type of automated equipment”, with the implementation of some machines proving more complicated.
Retrofitting the Future
Looking beyond the scope of the ports and terminals, retrofit automation is considered a crucial solution for the future by a range of different industries.
This is especially true for businesses that operate on both a large and small scale.
The manufacturing sector, for instance, might struggle to upgrade its entire operations at once without experiencing a significant and potentially damaging period of downtime.
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Replacing or retrofitting the majority of a system may decrease efficiency, but updating even the smallest components, or reusing an older machine for a new purpose, would not necessarily have this impact.
Ports and terminals, which can also be viewed both holistically as a functioning whole, or as a group of interacting systems supporting one another, could learn something from this; by slowly optimizing its performance in select areas, operators can hope to see a stronger ROI.
There may be no full-proof plan for automating cargo-handling facilities successfully – recent greenfield and brownfield projects have demonstrated both success and struggle – but with an intelligent and measured view of how operations can be improved, as well as the support of automation specialists and consultants, there is a bright future for the industry.
Article written by Liam Donovan. Assistant Editor