Automation in the Shipping Container Supply Chain
The advent of shipping containers in then 1950’s was the beginning of a long road toward an unmanned supply chain. In this blog we will look at the history of automation and how it will one day lead to an unmanned supply chain. Firstly, let’s look at what we mean by automation and unmanned: automation is where machines are ultimately operated by people, where in this blog we will look at ‘unmanned’ where machines operate themselves. Unmanned operations are seen to be cheaper and more efficient than manned and ultimately is where technology is leading the supply chain.
Before shipping containers
For thousands of years of maritime history, cargo was loaded on ships manually in containers that one or two people could carry. Wine was originally moved from country to country in pottery jugs, and some of these are still found in ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean today with the seals still intact.
As automation improved, so steamships and diesel powered ships reduced the amount of crew required to sails these vessels from port to port. Sailing cargo ships more or less stopped trading in the 1940’s.
Ships became larger and larger, so fewer people were needed to move a tonne of goods. Cranes made loads bigger, cutting the numbers of stevedores required to load and unload ships. Until the 1950’s though, grain was loaded in bags, whisky in barrels and most of these were moved in general ‘tramp cargo ships’.
In 1956, the first ever specialised container ship left Port Newark in the US for Houston. The world would change forever, as reduced manpower meant that factories making the goods for export could load the containers and a smooth operation of trains, trucks, cranes and specialised ships would move the goods around the world to the goods’ destination for sale to the general public.
The container supply chain up to the 2000’s
The process of goods leaving the factory until they reach the buyer is as follows:
- The goods are loaded in the container at the factory.
- The container is loaded on a truck and either sent to an ‘inland port’ to be loaded on a train or driven to the sea container port.
- (If loaded on a train the truck stops by a crane and the container is lifted onto a stack where it waits for the train, is loaded on the train and is sent to the sea port.)
- At the sea port, the container is lifted by a special crane, carried by a special truck to a stack where it stacked by a special machine and waits for the ship to arrive. The crane then moves it to a truck and then driven under the Ship to Shore (STS) crane and loaded on the ship.
- The ship sails and the process is reversed at the other end.
Until recently, technology has meant that while the machines are very specialised, people have had to drive the machines at every stage. Automation has meant that the gear used has been perfectly made for each step of the process. The container truck can only carry two things – the 20ft container or the 40ft container. The cranes can only carry 20ft or 40ft containers – they can’t lift anything else. Stacking cranes can only do one specialised operation, and finally the ships while able to carry the odd yacht or other long and thin object are primarily designed to carry only containers of a 20f for 40ft length. This has decimated the size of the workforce in dockyards around the world as only a few hundred people are needed to move tens of thousands of tonnes of goods every day at every shipping container port.
What’s wrong with people?
People cost money and get tired very quickly. Even the fittest have to take time off for sickness and to handle family matters. A STS crane operator can be paid over US$100,000 a year for their work, and there will be 2-3 operators per crane over a 24 hour period, as well as 2-3 cranes unloading and loading each ship. Truck drivers are far less expensive but considering each truck carries only one container at a time and there may be 5,000 movements per ship during its time in port. Even moving extremely quickly, the cranes moving containers between truck and stack and so forth require expensive manpower. At sea you have expensive crew and ashore you have less expensive truck drivers. Within the next 30 years none of these people will be working as the supply chain becomes completely unmanned. An already extremely efficient system is driving for ever greater efficiencies and the human factor is an inefficiency.
Unmanned machines start work
For the last few years there have been a number of cuts to shipping container port workforces. Let’s look at a few of them at home and abroad and show how container ports are moving toward a fully unmanned operation.
The Port of Rotterdam is one of the busiest shipping container ports in the world, handling large tonnages of containers for distribution across Europe. In 1993, the Delta / Sealand Container Terminal in Rotterdam became the first container terminal in the world to operate Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) to drive the containers between the STS cranes and the stacking cranes. At the same time the port also brought in Automated Stacking Cranes (ASCs) to move the containers from the AGVs to the holding areas for loading to the ships or onto the road or rail network. AGVs were diesel powered but ran on navigation systems based on magnets in the surface of the dock to guide them to their next stop, either the STS or ASC. The ASC was told by a computer system exactly where to drop the container so the system knew exactly where each one lay at a given moment for its next movement. This cut hundreds of jobs from the workforce and drove great efficiency into the system.
The technology driving the AGVs and ASCs has improved greatly over the years. Navigation systems have improved, and as battery technology has improved so in 2013, 20 years after the AGV was introduced, AGVs are now fully electric. Battery powered trucks are far simpler to operate and have less moving parts than the diesel engine, and so efficiency in maintenance has been improved.
Other countries catch up
Where Europe led the way in the global charge for full automation, other countries soon caught up when the reliability and safety issues made them a good move. In 2015, the Botany Bay port in Sydney dispensed with the ASC by employing unmanned ‘Autostrads’ to move goods between STS and ASC. In the Sydney and Brisbane container ports, new ASCs are able to stack the containers up to five high where the human operated stacking cranes could only stack three high. This reduces the size of the port footprint and the concurrent costs around the space needed for the operations.
The world’s newest ports are being designed to remove the need for STS crane operators.
The future – ASTS
In 2015 the Massvlatke II shipping container port in Rotterdam was opened, where fully unmanned STS cranes are in operation. According to the press release, “The facility launches the world’s first container terminal to utilize remotely-controlled STS gantry cranes. The cranes move containers between vessels and the landside fleet of 62 battery-powered Lift-Automated Guided Vehicles (Lift-AGVs) which transport containers between the quay and the container yard, including barge and on-dock rail facilities. The Lift-AGV’s also represent the world’s first series of AGV’s that can actually lift and stack a container. A fleet of 54 Automated Rail-Mounted Gantry Cranes (ARMGs) then positions containers in the yard in a high-density stacking system.”
In plain English, this means that robots are in control from the moment the container is taken off the ship until it is dropped onto the truck, train or barge for the next phase of its journey. Other ports are set to follow as soon as their own cranes reach the end of their service lives and other than computer and maintenance personnel, as well as those who tie the ship to the dock people will be almost unnecessary in the container port of the near future.
Trucks, warehouses, trains, delivery drivers…
Other than maintenance personnel, there are five steps to go to get rid of people from the supply chain. This is closer than you think.
Online e-commerce giant Amazon has been advertising how it is going to use flying drones to drop your parcel off when you order it online. Each drone will eventually replace a delivery driver. This is one of the many jobs that are set to disappear around the world as automation becomes a fact of life. Amazon are known to be investing heavily in automating its fulfilment centres to the point that one day there will be no pickers and packers required in its automated warehouses.
Daimler Benz has been showing off its fully self-driving heavy goods truck, while companies like Google are perfecting their fully self-driving cars and vans. While there is a UN Convention dictating that people have to sit in the driver’s seat while the vehicle is driving itself at the moment the time is coming that the costs of the computer technology (which is huge at present – far more expensive than a driver on their hourly rate for the lifespan of the vehicle) this will change when the economies of scale improve.
Automated trains are shown to be far safer than manpowered trains too. Visit Dubai or anywhere with a newer subway system and you will find driverless commuter trains, and the same technology will knock people out of container and cargo trains too.
And ships too?
Completely unmanned container ships may soon be plying the world’s oceans. As it is, these huge 1000 ft ships have fewer than 30 people aboard as crew, with computers doing everything from steering the ships to maintaining their engines. As automation progresses, so the time is coming where people will be unnecessary. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Palle Laursen, head of Maersk Line Ship Management the biggest shipping company in the world, said “The benefit of automation is as an enabler of further efficiency across the 630 vessels we operate.”
Will there be jobs in the supply chain at all?
The jobs of the future in the supply chain will largely be white collar jobs. There will always be the need for people in the process, at least for the next 50-100 years. People will need to maintain the equipment being used in the process, while there will be the need for the goods to be checked that they are going from the right place and to the right place. Contraband will need to be prevented from entering the supply chain, and taken out of it when it is found there. The heavy work though will disappear in the next decade or two, as from factory, to shopper the system becomes completely unmanned. The shipping container side of the supply chain is leading the way but is by no means the only link in the chain where robots are replacing people.
Is this scary?
In the 1990’s many people said that ‘computers are the future’. As technology has improved, so computers are being taught to think for themselves through ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI). This is happening across the board. Will the guy writing this blog have a job in 20 years? This is by no means certain. For everyone, computers are improving their worlds, and we need to adapt as they improve. Ultimately those operating those computers will have jobs, while those without those skills will need to find ways forward. From the Luddites of Victorian Britain onward, technology has made people feel threatened. It largely means we must improve our skills to move forward and adapt to the new world we face.
Gateway Container Sales
No matter what happens, there will always be a need to reuse shipping containers in some way! Get in touch with us at Gateway Container Sales to discuss your needs, we have hundreds of shipping containers in stock for sale or hire.