The focus of automation is shifting to brownfield container terminals 07/05/20

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The focus of automation is shifting to brownfield container terminals


Eurogate is considering Container Terminal Wilhelmshaven for the first roll-out of STRADegy

Although there are still major greenfield port automation projects under development, in port ranges where there is overcapacity, the focus of automation is shifting to brownfield terminals. Volume growth is limited and in some cases even negative, but evolution in ship sizes requires terminal operators to invest in longer and deeper berths and bigger cranes, and indeed to ‘overinvest’ since the pattern and container exchanges of ship calls result in much more pronounced peaks and troughs in the throughput chart.

Terminals need to optimise resources and achieve greater costefficiency, as well as align their investment strategy to labour market developments. Automation presents a challenge, as it is non-existent in a brownfield environment so far.


Eurogate’s STRADegy


One prominent operator considering automation is Eurogate Group, Germany’s and Europe’s biggest operator of straddle carriers, with a fleet of around 600 machines at its terminals in Bremerhaven, Hamburg and Wilhelmshaven.

Its STRADegy plan was outlined by Johannes Stelten, the company’s operational processes and automation manager, at Kalmar’s Automation Days event in Tampere in October.

Initially, the focus is Container Terminal Wilhelmshaven (CTW), where Stelten was formerly operations manager. This is a relatively new terminal, so it still has some ‘green tinges’ and would be, relatively speaking, easier to adapt to automation than the more established and busier terminals in Bremerhaven and Hamburg.

The object of STRADegy, said Stelten, is to develop and test an automation system that meets the performance demands of mega-terminals and growing ship sizes, is modular and scalable, is suited to the structural and climatic conditions of terminals in Northern Europe, and can be installed and integrated relatively seamlessly.

Scalability is important because it makes it possible to upgrade existing equipment, thus retaining know-how and reducing initial investment requirements. Scalability allows a gradual roll- out, which aligns with labour market conditions.

At CTW, there are five slots under the crane portal and five under the backreach. Can (de) coning at ground level be accommodated in an automated straddle carrier environment? For sure, manual and automated operations will need to be managed at the same time. Stelten said that 32 systems are needed for a manual straddle carrier terminal and over 130 for an automated operation.

A fundamental point for Stelten is that straddle carrier terminals are inherently very efficient and productive, since onlyone ‘self-decoupling’ machine type is required for transport and stacking, and they require less investment than terminals using AGVs and ASCs.

Infrastructure-wise, retaining the straddle carrier layouts involves minimum changes compared with completely new CY layouts. There could actually be an infrastructure gain. Manual straddle carrier stacks have to stay the same, which leads to surface rutting due to the constant machine passes, but an automated terminal layout can be regularly tweaked to avoid this.


In the context of the drive to lower emissions, Eurogate faces a major challenge, since most of its current fleet is made up of diesel-electric machines. Straddle carriers account for 68% of Eurogate’s total fuel consumption in Germany, and this figure must come down if the group’s overall carbon footprint is to be reduced.

Is it really feasible to reduce emissions quickly without replacing machines that are not life-expired, or does Eurogate have to gradually build up a fleet of battery-electric machines as older machines are replaced?

The other element to graduation, as noted above, is the labour situation. Straddle carrier driving is one of the toughest jobs in the ports industry, demanding intense concentration at all times to avoid life-threatening collisions and tip-overs.


Driving height is 6-7m above the ground, visibility is restricted, and RSI to the back, shoulders and neck is part of the job, no matter how ergonomic the cab layout and how good the isolation from vibration and shock loads. It is a young person’s game, but Stelten said that across Eurogate’s terminals, the average age of the workforce is 56.

It is not known how the demographic at CTW fits into this picture, as Wilhelmshaven and Lower Saxony more generally have a high unemployment rate compared with more prosperous parts of Germany. All the same, it is generally true that traditional port work is not attractive for today’s younger generation.


Labour economies

Going right back to the first automated terminals, part of the argument was that automated equipment costs were predictable and controllable, while labour costs would increase over time and labour would get scarcer.

Moody’s recently cited a Pacific Maritime Association report that said the average pay for a US West Coast dock worker is around US$175,000 per year, which puts them in the top 10% of American earners, plus a further US$110,000 in non-wage benefits. This explains why operators want to automate, and why the ILWU and its political friends are so resistant to it.

How does this relate in a North German context? German dockers get good pay and conditions and are well-organised. Ver. Di Maritime is part of the Ver.Di trade union, one of the biggest in Germany, with more than 2M members. Eurogate’s co-owner, BLG, is a public-sector body and it cannot simply throw people out of work.

In any event, Eurogate is discussing STRADegy with “several suppliers”, said Stelten. He declined to elaborate, although it was previously reported that Kalmar has a pilot project to supply CTW with a straddle carrier automation system with four 4-high AutoStrads. Stelten said that Eurogate sees IT as a core business, not something it would farm out to third parties, which

creates a difficulty when it comes to automation. Eurogate has traditionally run a mixed straddle carrier fleet, splitting its orders between suppliers to avoid becoming captive to any one manufacturer. When it comes to implementing automated equipment, this is much more challenging. The division between Eurogate’s own applications and those needed to run automated straddle carriers is not so simple.

Terminal operators have a vision for interchangeable automated equipment that is fully compatible with their preferred IT applications, but in an environment where there are no automation standards, vendors like Kalmar point out that this results in them ‘reinventing the wheel’ every time a customer wants to automate a machine. This dichotomy is likely to remain a feature of the ports industry for some time.


At the Automation Days event, the safety case for automation came up time and again. Antti Kaunonen, Kalmar’s president, Automation Solutions, quoted an ICHCA report from March 2019, stating there are typically 75 fatalities a year in the global ports industry, or one every 4.9 days.

The safety record of automated terminals is better than for manual terminals, but not everything is perfect. Concern has been expressed about recent incidents in North America and Europe involving collisions between long-travelling ASCs and containers that have been blown from the stack onto the rails during adverse weather conditions. It ranspires that the ASCs were not fitted with anti-collision systems.

Joint specification guidance compiled by TT Club, PEMA and ICHCA and published in 2012, states that all ASCs “should have an electronic travel anti-collision system to protect lives and property. Manufacturing without such systems is a serious safety omission and compromises safety”.

Not everyone agrees with this. ASCs are designed with extensive safety and anti-collision systems in the container exchange areas. To ensure safety around the crane rails, most ASC terminals fence off the crane rail area and use a safety gate type system to control personnel access. There is, therefore, no need for an anti-collision system in what is a secure area from the point of view of protecting lives.

The incidents of equipment damage raised by the TT Club highlight that there are other risks, but whether fitting anti-collision sensors is the appropriate response is more a question for terminal operators than crane OEMs.

Many ASCs are in fact specified down to the last nut and bolt by consultants, who together with the end-user must balance the cost of a safety system against the risk of incidents it is designed to prevent. A terminal with 70 ASCs, for instance, would be looking at an approximate cost of US$4-5M to put a longtravel anti-collision system on all corners of the cranes. Furthermore, there are concerns that these systems might trip when temporary obstacles such as birds are identified, causing the ASC to stop and require a reset.