The International Transport Forum published a report providing an overview of the current state of container terminal automation in ports.
he report shows which terminal activities have been automated in different ports and which additional activities might be automated in the future.
It also assesses the effects of automation on port performance, handling costs and safety, and the extent to which automation projects have achieved their objectives.
According to the report, fully automated container terminals do not yet exist. Across the world, 53 container terminals are now automated to a certain degree. This represents around 4% of global container terminal capacity.
Most automated systems are deployed in the container yard. Only a few terminals have automated the transport between quay and yard. No terminal has completely automated quay cranes
In addition, ITF notes that automated ports are generally not more productive than their conventional counterparts. In fact, port organisation and specialisation, geographical location and port size are more important determinants of port performance than automation. This explains the limited automation of container ports to date.
Comparatively, high handling costs also make the case for automation not entirely convincing:
Although automation of container terminals reduces labour costs, capital costs are higher as automated equipment is more expensive than manually operated equipment. Whether or not automation has led to lower overall handling costs is place-specific
Finally, it is assumed that automation improves the safety and health of terminal workers. The report mentions that while automating processes that expose workers to risk is “clearly beneficial, there is so far little robust empirical data to demonstrate significant overall improvement in outcomes in practice.”
As a matter of fact, a few container terminals have introduced remote quay-crane operations. Instead of operating from a cabin on the crane, the operator works from a distance in an operations centre on the port premises. This innovation has yielded mixed results so far in terms of productivity.
Moreover, automated systems for inter-terminal transport have also been discussed but have not been implemented because of their limited feasibility.
The port of Rotterdam sought to introduce an automated system for inter-terminal transfers but finally decided against it because of the costs and financial risks
As for container terminal automation, it appears to offer benefits only under certain conditions and thus for a limited group of terminals. Namely, container terminals that face a relatively stable market with guaranteed throughput are more suitable for high levels of automation because of their regular cargo flows.
On the other hand, terminals with fluctuating throughput are better served by less automation as this maintains greater flexibility.
Furthermore, consolidation of carriers, the market power of alliances and the rise of mega-ships have increased peak loads, volatility of cargo flows, and transhipment. These developments require terminals to be more flexible to assure ship-to-ship connections.
They make the case for automation less convincing and flexible arrangements for port labour more appropriate, provided enough labour is available. Yet these factors are sometimes absent from policy considerations
#1 More focus on flexible labour arrangements
The current situation in container shipping requires flexibility to deal with peaks and troughs related to larger ships and increased volatility of container flows.
With present technology, automated terminals are not particularly well suited to deal with these requirements.
Flexible labour arrangements, such as port labour pools, make it possible to vary labour inputs depending on the container volumes to be handled at any given moment. Governments should consider how such flexible port labour arrangements can be facilitated
#2 Better identify the costs and benefits of port automation projects
Terminal operators, trade unions and governments should have access to assessments of costs and benefits of port automation project proposals and their underlying assumptions.
This knowledge guarantees that all stakeholders can assess the merits of the automation project based on the same evidence.
Any evaluations of port automation projects should be made public. Findings will help policy makers to identify under which conditions automation could be effective.
#3 Stimulate social dialogue and co-operation between employers and workers on port automation
Collaboration between port stakeholders implies a social dialogue between employers, workers, and government representatives on the economics of cargo handling in ports.
This should cover wider developments in container shipping that affect the desirability of automation, such as industry consolidation and ever-larger ships, as well as automation itself.
Agreements to share productivity gains with workers can also facilitate the introduction of automation.
#4 Address social costs of automation
Analyses of port automation projects should include estimations of societal costs, including impacts on local employment and tax revenues.
Governments need this information even if issues related to automation are much broader than the port sector and subject to economy-wide policies on the balance between the taxation of capital and labour
the report concludes.