Embracing automation



Uno Bryfors, vice president, Crane Systems ABB AB, Västerås, Sweden


In the production plants of various industries, the chain from raw material to final product has been efficiently optimised to ensure uninterrupted production and maximum profitability. In this development, automation has played a key role. The same is now happening in container handling, where automation is expanding in the number of cranes and terminals but also in the level of functionality being delivered. Container terminals are becoming factories without roofs.

Automation is taking a major leap in many parts of the world. More and more container terminals are adopting automated solutions to meet the challenge of larger ships, taller cranes and bigger call sizes. This evolution changes the role of humans in the container handling process, from ship to gate. When automated systems are used, people are no longer continuously controlling the processes; instead they monitor, handle exceptions, and manage automated resources.

The container terminal’s challenge

More 16,000-19,000 twenty-foot unit (TEU) ships are introduced in the Asia- Europe trade every month. Within the next two years, the average ship size in this trade will reach 14,000 TEU. In addition, cascading of ships together with a lot of new 9,000 TEU ships will result in a doubling of the average ship size used in all other major trades within a few years time. Even if the trade volumes are expected to slowly increase, the number of loops and the number of port calls will decrease due to the increased vessel size. There were 35 vessels coming from Asia to Northern Europe in 2007 every week – this number is now down to 21 and is anticipated to continue to decrease. The challenge for the container terminals now is to handle fewer but very large calls. Shipping lines will not accept lower service levels or longer times at berths. Handling 20,000 TEU calls in 48 hours realistically requires a capacity of about 500 TEU/hour. And along with larger container ships comes a need for larger cranes to be able to load and discharge larger ships, and to do that efficiently. The question is how to handle the operation of the giant cranes with lifting heights of 50 metres and more. And it does not stop here.  Like many other industries with harsh working environments, the container handling industry needs to figure out how to remain an attractive work place for the future generations of port staff. Today all the industries are also seeking ways to increase energy efficiency to lower their environmental impact, and container terminals can do a great deal to improve their energy efficiency.

Automation as the response

The good news is that container terminals can

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