Manufacturers struggle to automate lashing

Twistlock handling Twistlock handling

Automation is changing the way terminals handle containers but automated box lashing has only been partially successful, writes Alex Hughes

Richard Brough, Head of the International Cargo Handling Coordination Association (ICHCA), identifies systems under development at RAM and Bromma as potentially automating twistlock handling.

The technology behind the Bromma development first emerged at the beginning of the current decade, although has yet to successfully complete live trials, while RAM’s PinSmart solution was given a “soft launch” earlier this year.

“Half the problem is that this type of research is very expensive,” says Mr Brough. “It takes a long time to get it right and requires active testing in an operating terminal. Interested
operators would have to change their systems, which could prove highly disruptive and would also require agreement from their shipping line customers.”

There are also more than 50 semi-automatic and automatic twistlocks on the market, he adds, meaning individual interfaces must be developed for each of them. “Getting twistlocks off is the relatively easy part,” he says. “The problem remains in putting them on, which in the Bromma system requires a magazine arrangement, with each magazine costing in the region of £1 million.”

Other solutions are under development, he notes, including robotic arms and the integration of twistlocks into the corner castings so they never have to be removed from the containers.

Another company, he recalls, is working on a block system, which would allow six empties to be lashed together, thereby reducing twistlock handling. However, for this to be adopted requires major changes on behalf of both the terminal and vessel.

While he remains relatively confident that a solution for twistlock handling is within the industry’s grasp, he is yet to be persuaded that much more can be done to automate lashing bars manipulation, which remains one of the most dangerous tasks.

“Lashing gangs already have tools that use compressed air to tighten and loosen lashing bars, but the only way I can envisage this manual task being eliminated is through a complete redesign of the vessels themselves. The obvious solution would be to develop fully cellular vessels, although the pressure on productivity that this implies would preclude any such development of that kind,” stressed Mr Brough.

RAM Spreaders remains one of the few manufacturers that is publicly making progress with automating twistlock handling on or under quay cranes. PinSmart I was first introduced by RAM in 2007 and implemented at terminals in Europe, the US and Singapore.

“The original machine performed very well, but there were labour and equipment integration issues,” notes project manager Cameron Hay.

The concept has evolved since then. Pinsmart I was semi-automated, while Pinsmart II is now fully automated, incorporating a robotic arm with interchangeable interfaces that can remove or install a range of common twistlocks.

“Our main customers are automated terminals, who want all functions automated. With two billion twistlocks handled every year, PinSmart II will make the task of removing or replacing twistlock cones safer, faster and cost-effective,” says Mr Hay, adding that there will not only be savings in respect of pin men wages, but also in the cost to terminals of fatal and other injuries, given that around four to eight people die annually.

“We calculate that return on investment from labour savings alone would be generated in six to 12 months,” confirms Mr Hay. “Given that many other types of technology only give a payback in excess of five years, many terminals could make a financial case for acquiring.”

While earlier versions of PinSmart did require some manual input, PinSmart II has eliminated this entirely. However, RAM recommends the deployment of one highly qualified
technician per berth to oversee up to six cranes to manage exceptions and twistlock logistics. There will also be an extra technician for engineering support.

“However, we envisage a total reduction per berth of 10 people,” says Mr Hay. Interestingly, of the more than 50 twistlock types in circulation, PinSmart II is capable of handling around 25 of the most common, but RAM is open to customer requests to adapt it to handle others as required.

With new technology, there is always the risk that something might go wrong and that testing has not identified. Nevertheless, Mr Hay stresses that, in terms of PinSmart II, it is
unlikely that the whole machine would break down, although he concedes that highly used end effectors that manipulate the twistlocks could possibly breakdown.

“In that case there are extras on the machine that can be swapped over in 20 seconds. If a more major incident takes place, where a unit sustained external damage, entire units can be lifted off and replaced in ten minutes, which is a similar time it takes to swap over spreaders.”

He concedes that integrating PinSmart II into terminal systems is a complex process to start with, but once it is in place, the trained teams who maintain and manage twistlock
handling then become skilled technicians, while the extensive training of experienced qualified tradesmen will make it easy to maintain.


Seeking safer lashing

According to Richard Brough, work undertaken by lashing and pin crews is “extremely dangerous”. This is a view echoed by Laurence Jones, Director Global Risk Assessment, at insurance specialist TT Club.

They both agree that the main danger faced by the pin crew comes from the risk of collisions with terminal vehicles, operating either automatically or manually, as well as from quayside equipment such as straddle carriers.

Containers being handled by the gantry crane overhead also remain a real and present danger. As for lashing duties, slips, trips and falls, as well as the potential to be hit by falling objects such as twistlocks or lashing bars, not to mention the containers themselves, are the main hazards.

These risks are even more visceral when having to work on stacks of 12-high deck-stowed boxes. “To mitigate such risks, some terminals have adopted portable barriers to act as ‘pinning stations’, while others have moved the operation to the cross beam of the quay crane to keep personnel off the terminal paving and away from vehicles,” says Mr
Jones, who adds that, “Most terminal operators are doing their best at fulfilling their duty of care for what remain risky tasks, but with comprehensive training and good systems and procedures in place these risks can be mitigated.”

However, Mr Jones believes that more can be done to make the lashing and container securing environment a safer one. He stresses that safety in the working area for lashers onboard ships can be improved.

“Measures such as adopting minimum walkway clearances, improved lashing bridge dimensions, better fencing, securing on opening hatches, proper platforms to work from, bins for lashing rods and safe access plans for the ship,” he outlines, also suggesting that potential remains to develop lighter lashing bars too.

“We would also like research to continue into ways of automating the entire process of lashing containers on the deck of a ship,” he adds.

Quizzed as to whether automation would automatically lead to cheaper insurance premiums, he remains cautious. “As with the introduction of any new equipment, system or procedure, automation will not reduce insurance premiums straight away. If, over a period of time, fewer accidents and insurance claims arise because of the introduction of this new technology, then premiums may reduce.”

According to Mr Jones, it is hard to picture lashing being entirely automated, although the hope remains that this will eventually happen. Finally, asked whether reducing the
insurance risk for terminals would be a driver in developing new automated equipment for lashing and twist lock handling, Mr Jones emphasises that the number one driver in automating lashing and pinning tasks is primarily to remove personnel from these duties and therefore reduce injuries.

“Reducing the insurance risk may be a result of automation in the longer term, but is a negligible driver compared to saving lives,” he says.

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