CONNECTING PORTS #7: Automating Terminals in Ongoing Operations

There is a global trend towards automating existing port terminals instead of setting up new facilities - but this entails risks. At the seventh CONNECTING PORTS talk show hosted by HPC Hamburg Port Consulting on 10 April 2024, experts discussed how downtimes and disruptions can be avoided during the conversion process. A key insight from the lively discussion on smart strategies: Well-informed people are just as important as sophisticated information technology. Christina Prieser, Associate Partner at HPC, moderated the session.

Belgian port consultant Jan Cuppens expects that large greenfield projects like Maasvlakte II, which was commissioned in the Port of Rotterdam in 2013, will not be the future of terminal development. “Instead, more existing facilities are being automated,” says the former Vice President of Global Engineering at port operator DP World. Despite groundbreaking technologies from Big Data to Blockchain, the Internet of Things, and Artificial Intelligence, he observes “increasingly fewer crazy ideas” in practice. For “retrofit automation,” where terminal tractors have been used, these can easily also be automated because the layout of a facility does not need to be changed. The general tendency to choose proven standardized solutions also applies here and “we do not need to invent new operational modes”.

Dennis Koegeboehn knows from two decades of port advisor experience that project phases, especially project delivery and existing operations overlap in brownfield automation , increasing complexity. A “concerted effort” is crucial for success, he believes: “It requires comprehensive coordination between those who carry out a project and those who need to operate the terminal efficiently.” This complex environment is often underestimated, the Program Manager Process & Technology at GatewaySA, Flinders Port Holdings, in Adelaide, Australia, says.

Rich Ceci, as Senior Vice President Technology and Projects at Virginia International Terminals, warns against changing the “recipe” of terminal automation too much for different needs. He learned this while baking cakes at home, having automated car factories for over a quarter of a century before building the first automated terminal in the USA for APM Terminals: “If the wrong ingredients are swapped out, the end result is no longer a cake anyone would want to eat.” Jan Cuppens sees it similarly: “An automated terminal, compared to a manual terminal, is a system.” And for this, you don’t simply combine a few parts. His example: While a failed straddle carrier at a manual terminal can be easily replaced, a faulty Automated Guided Vehicle ( AGV) may require partial shutdown of the terminal.

For economic planning during the transition, he also recommends looking at more than just earnings before interest and taxes (EBITDA). Although the operating cost for an automated system are lower than for a manual system, the higher depreciation cost kick in. This then shows in the profit after tax (PAT) results.

Dennis Koegeboehn points out that systems in brownfield terminals have grown over decades. Integrating these is very specific – even though there are now more standards. “When we change small aspects to circumnavigate upcoming issues, eventually we must always ensure that we still deliver on the original plan, so there are no surprises,” he warns. But how can technical challenges of integrating new automation technologies into existing systems be effectively addressed to maintain operational continuity? Rich Ceci considers a technology plan essential, outlining which components “must be aligned with the automated system before the rest of the hardware is developed.” Because transitioning to automated systems is highly complex, Jan Cuppens notes that the corresponding equipment “must work much more reliably” than manual devices.

However, an automated terminal does not operate smoothly without people. For Dennis Koegeboehn, this means working closely with the management team, tapping into experienced resources as well as bringing operational employees on board: “They understand the processes and peculiarities of the site.” They also share the benefits of the transformation among each other. Then, someone from the audience wants to know what helps to alleviate employees’ fears. Rich Ceci’ project teams always include “a universally respected person from the operational area”.

Moderator Christina Prieser asks how to motivate employees for both ongoing operations and project management over the years. “People need to understand that they are running a marathon, not a sprint,” says Rich Ceci. When he was asked to convert the two most important container terminals in the port of Virginia to semi-automated operation in 2016, it took four years. For projects of this size, he has had good experiences with setting up a project team meeting every morning that includes a conference call dial in. There is also a monthly steering committee meeting involving the C-level management of the port. Jan Cuppens clarifies again: “The project manager can be an external consultant, but you need the future operators, IT, and maintenance people of the system in the project group.” Training is considered crucial to success – and not just for the existing workforce, as Dennis Koegeboehn emphasizes: “Train your customers including truck drivers and service providers. Make sure these people understand what is going on to stay safe.”

Jan Cuppens points out the problem that the originally planned test phase is often shortened in practice. This can be due to slow decisions and project delays – an unfavorable scenario if “the ship arrives on the scheduled date and must be handled.” Rich Ceci agrees that this is not an option. Those who do not test properly ultimately take longer to roll out the system to full capacity. Finally, Dennis Koegeboehn concludes with a link to automation technology and appeals: “We come from an asset-heavy sector and invest a lot in maintenance and modernization of equipment. We should get used to the thought that the same must apply for IT systems as the brain of the terminal.”

The complete session Connecting Ports #07 is available as a video here.
Journalist Kerstin Kloss summarized the event for HPC.