Europe's first remotely controlled STS crane orders get pulses racing, as Felicity Landon discovers
When APM Terminals’ begins operations at its new Maasvlakte II terminal in 2014, there won’t be any drivers heading upwards to start work on its ship-to-shore cranes. In fact, there won’t be any cabins either – because those controlling the cranes will be sharing a nice warm office with colleagues nearby.
Both APMT and Rotterdam World Gateway have ordered ship-to-shore cranes with remote control technology supplied by ABB to their new terminals, and these will be the first cranes of their type in Europe to operate without a driver.
How brave is that step? Frank Tazelaar, managing director of APM Terminals Maasvlakte II, points out that the technology required for remote control has been around for quite some time in other industries – and that ABB has been piloting its first remotely controlled STS crane in Manzanillo, Panama, for nearly two years.
“The package we are buying from ABB is largely what they have presented to the world over the past two years, and is installed. The big leap is it is going to be deployed in a real live environment here,” he says. “To a certain extent, you have to be brave. But you also have to think – is this what you want right now? And we have concluded that remote control is the right thing to do, right now.”
First of all, APMT is building a highly automated terminal and the move to RC is more obvious in this case than in a more manual operation, he says. “If you have the right drive and mindset to push the automation levels, it becomes obvious that you look to RC.”
But the other crucial issue for APMT involves speed, size and height. Maersk Line’s 18,000 teu Triple-E class ships will start to enter service in 2013, and other shipping lines are bound to follow with their own increasingly large containerships. The challenge is that these mega ships are not getting longer or deeper, but they are getting broader and higher. So while each ship has more containers to be handled, the number of cranes alongside cannot be increased proportional to the size of the ship, says Neil Davidson, senior advisor – ports at consultancy firm Drewry.
“That makes it challenging to keep up productivity. The lines are saying they are going to spend the same amount of time in port, with more cargo, while there are certainly limits of how many cranes you can put alongside. So the pressure to increase productivity is probably the most significant factor with the Triple-E, more so than physically being able to get ships in and out of ports.”
Mr Tazelaar also highlights the overall pressure to increase productivity: “We are designing a terminal that will be servicing the biggest vessels of the latest design by Maersk and that leads to issues regarding dimension and speed of crane. It is great if you can do a couple of crane cycles more [per hour] but there is also driver experience to consider. It looked for us that we would encounter the limitation of man on machines; we are looking at speeds and accelerations and working height where it is very difficult for the driver to do that job.”
Even if you did still want someone ‘up there’, the driver would need camera assistance anyway, he adds. “We would have to slow down the acceleration of the crane to what the driver could handle – with RC, that limitation isn’t there anymore.”
Although it is known that a lot of crane drivers love their job, including working at height, there might also be health and safety issues involved if they were to meet required speeds, he adds.
Instead, APMT will have staff ‘driving’ the cranes from an office away from the physical action, using cameras and remote control linked by cables.
“A lot of the action in a crane is already automated today and what we are doing is removing the last ‘manual’ part,” he says. “Someone has to push the button – and they will be doing it from a remote distance.”
The eight quay cranes for APMT are being manufactured by Cargotec and an extensive testing period will begin next year. Bearing in mind that a system like this has never before been operated on such a scale, there is a lot of work to be done, says Mr Tazelaar.
“It may seem futuristic but in other industries, such as mining and manufacturing, a lot of things are already done by remote operators – it is just that is hasn’t arrived yet in the container terminal industry. It’s known that other ports considering a similar size of crane have also been contemplating this technology, so I think there will be a few locations where it will be followed up on.”
The biggest challenge says Mr Tazelaar, will be getting people accustomed to the procedures and organisation involved. “We think there is no fallback for that – just hard work.”
In terms of defining what is important, there are three layers, he says. First, the systems on the crane – electrical, technical and IT. Second, the desk where the remote operator sits – with ergonomics and working environment to be considered. Third, and the most challenging, is adapting to a new way of working. “The soft side – what does it mean for people? It is completely different to be up in the air, to change from being master of the machine, to just another person in the office.”
A big advantage for APMT is this is a new terminal. “People have tried to introduce partial RC in existing terminals and so far it hasn’t really worked. We can start basically from scratch and build our organisation around this new set-up.”
As for maintenance, APMT is still discussing maintenance plans and what will be outsourced or kept in-house. “This is quite critical to us,” he says. “Basically what you need for RC is relatively simple on the crane – sophisticated IT systems and cameras. You need to maintain the cameras and keep the lenses clean. The data will travel by fixed data cables.”
Apart from enabling more speed and height, he believes there will be another benefit of RC. Where a driver sitting high up may be limited because of lack of visibility caused by fog and bad weather, forcing operations to stop, it’s possible that a remotely controlled crane could continue working for longer, because the monitor and cameras are closer to the action.
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