Container terminal planning: improving system productivity to service larger container vessels



Robert S. Johansen, PE, Senior Project Manager, JWD Group, a division of DMJM Harris, Oakland, CA, USA



The container shipping industry, the backbone of the global economy supply chain, continues to grow, adapt, and change. It responds to an international marketplace that relentlessly exerts influences by demanding better, more efficient, and less expensive services. Those of us providing planning and design services to this industry must understand the direction of these changes and accurately predict the long-range impacts on vessel, berth, and terminal design. In order to succeed at our tasks, we must develop a full understanding of the industry’s goals and needs and then respond effectively.

The shipping industry has been an extremely volatile yet conservative entity, characterised by strong competition, high capital costs, high operating costs, and low profit margins. Labour unions have continued to pressure for the status quo; however, economic necessity is continually driving the industry to explore more efficient work practices. In its attempts to remain economically viable, the industry has moved in several key directions – adopting economies of scale, implementing new technologies, and now integrating automation into terminal operations. Container vessels continue to grow in size as the economies of scale are explored and pushed to the limits of current hull and engine design technology. The impacts of larger vessel size on terminal design will become even more severe as vessels continue to increase in size and capacity.

Terminal planners and designers have faced the challenge of larger vessel deployments by providing facilities with higher velocity handling equipment and complex stowage schemes. Increased storage demand has caused terminals to grow in size and density. Increased terminal size has produced longer in-terminal travel distances. Increased density has resulted in larger container stacks with both an increase in the number of re-handled containers and traffic aisle congestion. The theoretical increase in quay productivity from the higher velocity equipment has been offset by increases in the inefficiency of backland operations. As in most container terminal operations, the efficiency of the backland operations acts as the throttle that controls the velocity of the entire system.

Comparing ongoing to previous operations at upgraded container terminals has validated this point. ‘Net’ quay crane lift counts experience only marginal productivity increases. Quay cranes with a theoretical sustained productivity level in the forty lifts per hour range, with few exceptions, are found to operate in the low to mid thirties at best. The upgraded operations do process more container volumes; however, the resulting individual crane productivities demonstrate only marginal increases. Greater throughput is achieved by adding more quay cranes, more land, more backland equipment and yard cranes. Rarely is the true productivity of the container handling system itself greatly altered.

New approaches and technologies

The implementation of new approaches and technologies offers a potential solution that is starting to be developed. Technological advancement has been slow to materialise in many sectors of the industry. This has primarily been due to resistance from labour to change and/or reluctance of terminal operators to commit capital funds without a guaranteed return on investment. As new technologies have become proven in the marketplace, this reluctance has started to dissipate. One is starting to see more usage of video camera monitoring systems, optical character recognition (OCR), automatic equipment identification (AEI), differential global positioning systems (DGPS), and now automated container handling operations.

Technology in the form of more sophisticated terminal operating systems (TOS) is starting to have major impacts on the operations of modern terminals. This is demonstrated in such diverse areas as inventory control, equipment maintenance scheduling, vessel planning and yard planning, and automated terminal operations. Gate appointment and transaction data can now be integrated to facilitate the pre-planning of terminal service fleet assignments. Equipment resource assignments can be modified in ‘real time’ to meet the ever-changing needs of the operations and result in more efficient use of those resources.

Container handling equipment automation can also be used to eliminate some of the problems conventional terminals experience in addressing peaks in activity. No longer does terminal management have to anticipate and book extra labour in advance to handle what might be an hour or so of peak gate or shipside activity. Automated container handling equipment operations need not be limited to defined working labour shifts. Accordingly, container shuffling, based on the next day’s planned activities, can occur automatically throughout the night, placing containers for the next day’s deliveries to the forefront. The results are better service to the customer and more cost efficient terminal operations.

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