Smart tech slashes costs in bulk port operations


The speed technology is used to cut out erroneous decisions and reduce port demand for physical labor is racing ahead of even the most forward thinking. In the container shipping world, the 100% automated terminal may still be a rarity, but the 80% automated terminal is not. Even multi-purpose and multi-user terminals have been proven to be quite easy to automate.

However, terminals are still too preoccupied with selecting terminal operating systems (TOS), which ‘boxes in’ their thinking on automation. They shouldn’t. Data-driven optimization provides the highest return on investment (ROI), when it stretches way outside the terminal gates and berths.

Automation for remote control

The possibilities of automation are rapidly increasing. Fully automated ships that respond to electronic commands of on-shore guiding equipment are already being tested. The quay side equipment has long done away with having an operator or a driver on site.

And while operators still prefer to keep the control room on the grounds of the terminal, the reality of automation is that the control ‘tower’ could easily be in a bunker 1,000km away from where the action is.

As you can see, so many fascinating things are happening when it comes to automation and optimization of the container terminal. However, I see very few discussions on the impact of automation and data-driven optimization in bulk ports. The changes happening in complex bulk terminals are equally fascinating, and the ROI on well-thought out projects is significant.

Smarter planning for coal terminals

Let’s take a tour of a coal terminal moving 150 million metric tons of coal a year through their 10 double-sided berths. Here, you’ll have trouble finding a human. The control room is 2km away, a quiet oasis of automated systems fed with data 24/7 by thousands of sensors and cameras.

At the time of my visit, 20 odd ships were being loaded with coal. This easily exceeds the capacity for rapid decision-making of even the best human operators. Only exceptional events derived from calculating data reported by the machinery are conveyed to the human controllers for action. As the vessels are loaded, the trim control remains in the hands of the vessel crew and ship’s computer. Frankly speaking, the barrier to synchronizing the ship’s trim controls with shore loading equipment control is not high at all. All that is needed is the trust in two machines making the right decision 100% of the time.

The future of coal transportation

On the other side of the control room, deeper inland, thousands of kilometers of rail tracks linking the mines and the port converge on the port’s coal stack yard. The trains still have human drivers at the controls, but their movements are not solely determined by the driving crew, but also decided by the rail network operations center. In fact, by 2017, you might not find any human driver on dedicated mining freight networks.

The train has many controlling devices and sensors to indicate what is happening with the engine and each railcar. Track intelligence tells the engine is told what to do, especially when it comes to the timing of braking or increasing the speed of the train, as this is when energy is most wasted in the process of starting and stopping the machines. A human operator can’t perform these two tasks efficiently 100% of the time, no matter how ideal the working environment. This will not happen with the computer.

Full automation of the whole process of coal transport, from the mining pit to the port, is only a short step away. There is no need for multiple control centers, as human decisions can be replaced by algorithms which are able to synchronize customer mine production with yard capacity, ship arrivals schedule, railcar dumpers work rate and vessel loading rates.

Timely integration and processing of the data is the key to efficiency and safety

In the coal terminal, coal cannot be piled up too high as it could self-ignite. Reading data from the sensors monitoring the piles, the computers process all physical and chemical constraints and change train movements, loading plans and blending decisions.

The cost of automating the machinery is not low, but it offers long-lasting gains in efficiency. The same automation has also profound impact on efficiency of the workforce. Automation removes the need for downtime due to shift changeovers, meal breaks, toilet breaks or medical situations.

With humans away from the direct controls, automated precision of equipment movements easily reduces wear and tear, as well as fuel consumption. Next time you see a human driver gunning a front-loader around the coal yard or a straddle carrier around the container stacks, you will understand what I mean.

How effective is the investment of arming equipment with new sensors and controllers, building reliable data communications network and implementing advanced optimization applications? Results so far suggest annual revenues from extra capacity gained this way is around five times more than the investment made. Keep this in mind the next time you analyze the ROI of your port technology investments.

This post was previously published on LinkedIn.