Off the dock
The perks of divorcing the driver from port equipment are clear, finds Alex Hughes
With the advent of automated stacking cranes, equipment operators are no longer tied to their physical machines. They can enjoy the comforts of an office environment in remote locations rather than battling out the elements on the docks.
This leads to less idle time of both cranes and personnel - when as much as 20% of a yard crane operator's day is lost to idle time in a manual operation, productivity can be drastically improved through this decoupling.
Thomas Gylling, head of global automation sales, port cranes, at Konecranes, believes that this figure “is quite conservative" and that at many container terminals, manned RTGs can be idle for a considerably higher period of time, which means that the RTG operators are idle as well. He adds that decoupling operators from the machines they oversee allows these people to be redeployed to ensure that they are productive all the time.
“Operator productivity therefore goes up by at least 25%,” he says.
Thomas J Rucker, vice president operations department at Panama's Manzanillo International Terminal (MIT), agrees that de-coupling results in less crane idle time, always assuming planners are keeping the cranes busy.
“Getting to 0% idle time is every operator's dream, but the reality is there will always be some, given the nature of cargo mix, maintenance, or other yard stacking strategy factors,” he says.
But boosting operator productivity by 25% depends on whether a terminal has sufficient moves, he argues. He also has concerns over how productivity is measured, suggesting that a notable value proposition in those terminals with automated blocks is that of revenue to non-revenue generating move ratio.
“At MIT, in an automated environment, we do more revenue producing moves in comparison to non-revenue moves. Currently, we have a ratio of 1:2.7 in our conventional blocks and one of 1:2 in our automated blocks. If you are therefore looking for the true cost of moving a container, this is true margin protecting savings,” he says.
Fredrik Johanson, head of sales at ABB Ports, also believes that remote supervision can produce average productivity improvements of 25%, although this depends on other factors related to yard operations as well as on the overall size of the business. One of the main advantages, he says, is that a remote operator can supervise up to 25 automatic stacking cranes at any one time.
In respect of whether it is a good thing to have operators fully employed throughout their shift, he says that the operator’s main task changes to become one of supervising the process and only taking action when required to manage exceptions.
“Any extra stress level could be controlled by ensuring there are a sufficient number of breaks during a shift. However, this becomes easier, too, since other operators can easily take over the cranes being overseen by the operator who is having a break,” he says.
Mr Rucker believes stress levels depend on how many overall moves are 100% automated. The higher the percentage of fully automated moves, the more time the operator is simply managing exceptions, he says.
Significantly, MIT reports less absenteeism following the decoupling of yard cranes. Asked why, he notes: “The control centre is a ‘high-tech’ area, which we have staffed with A-type personalities. These people are motivated, driven, and really run on the 'can-do' imperative.”
Mr Gylling also concedes that if all idle time is eliminated, operators can potentially be put under more stress. However, in the Konecranes remote operation concept, the operator is relocated to a pleasant office environment, which contrasts completely to the more austere crane cabin they are used to. There is also plenty of scope to widen the crane operator job description. “Practically, crane operators in a remote operation model can take on many different operational aspects, including planning, trouble shooting and back office tasks. The crane operator becomes a process controller and an office worker at the same time, rather than just being a crane operator,” he says.
Mr Rucker reports similarly pluses at MIT: “We have had some strong candidates in this environment move on to other supervisory and management positions. We strongly encourage employees to reach out like this as, in the end, it makes the terminal better,” he says.
ABB's Mr Johanson emphasises that automation and remote operation effectively change the role of the operator. It becomes possible to set up multi-skilled teams in which the operators perform other tasks alongside supervising cranes. Within these teams, job rotation becomes possible. Thus, the operator’s role can become more versatile than previously, while the workplace is notable for its ergonomic and comfortable working environment, he says.
As for what factors could undermine reductions in operator idle time, Mr Rucker concedes that the true Achilles heel could potentially be IT communications.
Nowadays, he says, IT communications are stable and reliable given the amount of redundancy that is built into systems. However, links do still go down, pushing idle time quickly up.
“The real trick is having a procedure and system in place to quickly diagnose and recover,” he says, adding that the amount of data transmission in a de-coupled environment makes it enormously different from a wholly manual operation.
“In a manual operation, we can revert to communicating via radio to a live operator. If the terminal operating system goes down, then you can still operate the crane at reduced service levels. However, if the connection to the crane goes down in an automated environment, you are at full stop.”
Mr Gylling, too, is at pains to point out that a de-coupled environment is only as good as the IT communications that are in place. “The most reliable connection is by point-to-point fibre optics and cable,” he says, adding that, with sufficient redundancy in the systems, there is no need to think that operations will be interrupted. “Wireless technologies are improving all the time and, gradually, links will start to come onto the market with guaranteed performance and uptime.”
While manual yard crane operations do require communication between the crane operator and the TOS, the movement of information is as nothing compared to that in a de-coupled environment, he says, where there is a much greater need for data communications. “The single biggest user of bandwidth in remote operation is video,” he adds. “In addition, latency needs to be low for both video and control signals to avoid the remote operator feeling that there are delays in both crane moves and reactions.” ABB has few concerns in respect of the IT infrastructure behind automation. Mr Johanson says that built in redundancy invariably maximises availability.
“As far as we are concerned, the infrastructure available today is both robust and stable. From the IT infrastructure point of view, a TOS is vital and disturbances to the TOS have a big impact on a terminal’s operation.”
As for the impact of higher yard productivity on maintenance, Mr Rucker suggests that working cranes faster definitely reduces the time between maintenance cycles. Although 100% uptime is virtually impossible, he adds, various strategies have been implemented to ensure crane coverage where it is needed.
“In the short term, we did need more equipment at MIT, given higher throughput, which also meant needing more technicians to ensure smooth operations. Clearly, savings on operators were being offset in other areas, although in the long term this has not been the case,” he says.
This jobs trade-off dilemma is something that has raised many questions, he adds.
“The true costs associated with higher skilled staff have yet to be realised and are more in line with a long term strategy. However, technology is leading to better jobs and to better opportunities not only for the worker, but also for the company.” Asked whether cutting back on operator idle time automatically meant that cranes worked more, too, Mr Gylling says the two concepts are distinct. While operator productivity rises, he argues, crane idling time is subject to the planning of efficient container flow though the terminal and container yard, which is a different story all together.
According to Mr Johanson, automation is “machine friendly”, as it results in smoother landings, since both acceleration and deceleration are better controlled. This, in turn, reduces the need for maintenance of the equipment. Of course, if the number of moves increases, maintenance interventions have to be similarly adjusted.
“The amount of equipment in the yard needs to be defined based on the number of expected moves. With efficient equipment and an operational strategy in place, yard operations can be highly productive and cost effective,” he says.
Automatic stacking cranes are also more efficient than alternatives, so fewer units overall are needed. They are faster, stack higher and wider and run automatic housekeeping during low activity periods to increase yard utilisation and overall block productivity.
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