Don't forget the human touch

Patrick got it 'spot on' with its mixed manned/automated handling model. Credit: Patrick
Patrick got it 'spot on' with its mixed manned/automated handling model. Credit: Patrick
DP World sees a continued need for human intervention in container terminal operations, even if fully automated
DP World sees a continued need for human intervention in container terminal operations, even if fully automated. Credit: DP World
There needs to be the right balance of people and automation for operations to run smoothly. Credit: DP World
There needs to be the right balance of people and automation for operations to run smoothly. Credit: DP World
Industry Database

Avoid the empty promises of automation and think about the bigger productivity picture, advises Alex Hughes.

Port equipment manufacturers have questioned the rush to eliminate the hand of man from many automated terminal projects. Too much focus on technology and automation for the sake of it is leading to overly-complex solutions in ports, according to Kalmar vice president Frank Kho.

“What happens is that promised performance won’t be met, even after a longer than expected terminal ramp-up time, which could be one to two years,” Mr Kho asks. Indeed, he warns that there are several glaring examples of terminals where crane productivity of 35-40 moves per hour was targeted - and promised - only for performance to stick at a level of fewer than 30 moves per hour.

Conversely, there are other examples of terminals that got it spot on, with Mr Kho citing Patrick’s automated straddle carrier operations in both Brisbane and Sydney as good examples: “In such a terminal, where the ship-to-shore cranes are manned, the crane driver can unload containers from a vessel in the highest possible and safest way. He will not lose time when trying to locate the exact spot on the ground to place the container within an accuracy of few centimetres. Instead, he can put it in the approximate location because an automated straddle carrier is able to align itself exactly with the container.” This, he believes, is how automated and manually-operated elements can successfully mesh together.

DP World adds that automated terminals will get better going forward, with this type of operation - allied with human expertise - delivering efficiencies. However, manual terminals can still be very productive if they have reliable equipment and a range of good schedulers overseeing the terminal operating system.

“In the future, there will most likely always be human intervention in container terminal operations; the desire is, however, to limit this to a minimum in systems which have been automated for consistency and accuracy, as every human action in such automated systems is a disturbance that could trigger further issues,” says a spokesperson.

The way forward, suggests the company, includes robotic ports and developing a talent pipeline of a diverse workforce that can take forward DP World’s business strategy into the next phase of tech innovation.

Another of the big global terminal operating groups told Port Strategy that automation requires operational process revamps and complex risk management systems, hence it is practical to do this in operations where there are better controls over the operating environment, where jobs are repetitive and processes can be standardised.

Even so, it is still a challenge to automate ship-to-shore operations due to the dynamics generated by different types of ships, by ship movements, and also because by safety considerations. This operator's primary objective when automating is therefore “to improve operations productivity, but only if it makes economic sense".”

Human element

But as to whether human intervention should be eliminated altogether at terminals, automation brings with it standardisation and rigidity, sometimes at the expense of productivity and flexibility. Today's technology cannot yet fully replace the flexibility and situational responses of a human.

Lasse Eriksson, Kalmar’s vice president for new digital concepts, believes that a complete unmanned operation is possible when automating repetitive processes. Here, human interaction will only be requested when certain issues are detected. However, non-standard events will still occur and have to be seen as an integral part of transporting containers.

An automated operation cannot handle things such as leaking containers, damaged/stuck twistlocks and dented boxes and it will require much more time to solve these basic issues, he suggests, if there is no human oversight available at the terminal. “There has to be the right balance of people and automation to run operations smoothly and at an optimal cost, he says.

Heavy boxes moved across open seas undergo tremendous physical stresses, so some degree of damage is inevitable. Even on arrival, business decisions can change, meaning that boxes are no longer allocated the 'right' location at the terminal by the planning system, which therefore needs to be overridden.

DP World also sees little prospect of exceptions being completely eliminated; however, these should be limited as far as possible so as to not interfere with an automated system made of millions of algorithms and calculations, which once tampered with, will create a domino effect of issues. “It is also important to correctly identify the tasks that need to be automated in the first place – you shouldn’t automate an analytical function that relies on human intervention and then expect it to run smoothly with the technology available at the time.

"As the tech industry evolves, we’ll find new and better ways to make trade faster, safer and more cost effective and, to achieve this, there’ll remain an element of trial and error until we find the niches of our own capabilities and those of the tech solutions we employ.”

Anomalies inherent

The other global terminal operator approached by PS also concedes the inevitable presence of anomalies inherent in automated handling operations demands, so some degree of human oversight is a must. However, it pointed out that that both Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning capabilities mean that even automated systems can learn from mistakes and reduce overall human errors.

The operator’s spokesperson explains that the company actively works with technology providers and closely involves human operators to achieve better-design and integrated automation systems while also improving service levels and productivity. Yet major problems remain within the IT industry, since the spokesperson concedes that, on occasions, “Technology providers may not really understand terminal operations and tend to offer standard solutions which are often proprietary, difficult to adjust and may not work in all situations.”


Automation is not the only answer to increasing container terminal efficiency; human beings can also be 'tweaked'. The message from industry professionals is that human operatives retained in an automated system must evolve too. This does not necessarily imply having to lose existing workers, but can be achieved through continual training, upgrading and equipping existing operatives with new skills.

According to Kalmar's Mr Kho: “Creeping automation means that, in terms of personnel, the emphasis will be on monitoring and co-ordinating/decision making to act when something cannot be handled properly by the system. This will require a completely different set of competencies. In many ways, future roles will mirror those of an airline pilot, who relies on the auto-pilot 90% of the time, but has to be ready – not to mention also having the knowledge and experience - to override the system and take over when needed.”

He nevertheless sees several legitimate reasons for operators to want to reduce the human element from the handling process. Decreasing personnel cost is clearly a major driver. However, it is also becoming increasingly difficult to set up work and shift structures when the peak operational loads have become bigger, due to larger vessels and volumes. “Instead of five vessels each generating 1,000 moves, we now get a couple of calls, with a box transfer of around 2,500 units on each,” he says. There is also the problem as to what will happen when Generation Z (defined as those currently 2- 19 years of age) enters the workplace.

It is suggested that this group of people is less likely to want to do physical work in ports or terminals. “So, the solution is to offer remote control of equipment in an office environment. This will give access to a bigger pool of potential employees,” says Mr Kho.

The unnamed global terminal operator also notes that, in terms of future employee profile, change seems inevitable, given that the nature of work is evolving at a pace never seen before and trends in the box handling sectors sector are changing all the time.

“A shift of competences can also clearly be seen. It is not so much about whether ‘we want to pay’ for this new skill set, but rather ‘can we find the right people’?” says the spokesperson. “Experts in new technologies, big data and the internet of things, robotics, and driverless vehicles are now being sought to drive our business forward and to make it more efficient so it can lead and respond to change."

As to whether automation is always the answer to increasing efficiency, or whether employee development can produce similar results, it seems, remains open to debate.


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