Bringing remote controlled operations to the people

Hutchison's Laem Chabang development is being completed in stages. Credit: Hutchison
Industry Database

Hutchison’s Laem Chabang expansion is bringing much-needed capacity and world-leading technology to its operations in Thailand. Felicity Landon reports

The launch of the first phase in Hutchison Ports Thailand's (HPT) $600m expansion at Laem Chabang attracted plenty of media attention locally – not least because, as part of its CSR programme, it will welcome schoolchildren and other visitors to 'have a go' on the consoles in a brand new remote control centre.

“We will have an area where people can observe the remote control operations and we will be letting local people come in and 'play' with the joysticks,” says Stephen Ashworth, Hutchison's managing director, Thailand and South East Asia. “We expect a lot of interest from the local community, government and shipping lines who want to have a look. The CSR aspect of what we do is very important.”

The first phase of the Terminal D development features both quay cranes and rubber-tyred gantry cranes (RTGs) that are fully equipped with remote control technology. Hutchison describes this as a world first. While quay crane remote control technology is well established, “we are pioneers in introducing remote control RTGs and are very excited about them”, says Mr Ashworth.

Terminal D is a major expansion on top of HPT's A2, A3, C1 and C2 terminals at Laem Chabang. When D1, D2 and D3 are completed, they will provide a total 1,700 metres of quay with 17 super-post-panamax cranes and 43 electric RTGs, all using remote control technology. Phase D1A, providing 400 metres of quay with three quay cranes, entered operation in June; the rest of D1 is due for completion mid-2019, with D2 and D3 to be developed in phases and the whole Terminal D expected to be operational in 2023-24.

“We are developing in phases and we expect the demand will be there for us to fill it up as we complete,” says Mr Ashworth. “Our existing terminals have been operating close to capacity. Thailand is a very export-driven economy and shippers like to get their cargo out of the factories over the weekend - so a lot of our big intra-Asia and East-West services are weekend calls, when we are essentially full.”

The opening of D1A will give the other terminals some breathing space and also provide an option for customers looking to upsize their vessels, he adds.

HPT handled 2.8m teu at its Laem Chabang facilities last year, giving it a 33% share of container volumes at the port. “We expect our market share to increase over the foreseeable future,” says Mr Ashworth.

Productivity drivers

“For customers, the key driving force in our decision to go for remote control is productivity. Based on our experience in our terminals in Oman and elsewhere where we have remote control quay cranes, we would expect a vessel with 3,000 moves handled by four quay cranes to be handled 20% faster. That is attractive to a lot of shipping lines.”

The terminal design also responds to pressure to be greener. “Our electric RTGs will be quicker and cleaner than diesel; we are installing LED lighting; and we are looking at digitalising and having a paperless gate system,” says Mr Ashworth.

The first phase of Terminal D represents a $250m investment and is one of the largest developments ongoing in the Hutchison Group at present, he adds.

Laem Chabang is not handling the world's largest container ships, although he says that future expansion could accommodate these. At present, vessels are generally up to 10,000 teu and volumes are dominated by intra-Asia traffic, mostly Thai exports to the rest of the world via Singapore, Malaysia, China and Hong Kong.

In terms of long-haul, THE Alliance operates four direct East-West services – two to the US west coast, one to the US east coast and one to Europe.

“We expect intra-Asia traffic to remain dominant,” says Mr Ashworth. “There might be more East-West traffic over the next few years but ultimately are we going to be a transhipment hub? It is difficult in terms of location to compete with Singapore, Tanjung Pelepas or Port Klang.”

Laem Chabang benefits from excellent road connections to Bangkok, its main catchment area 130 kilometres away, as well as a recently upgraded rail link and the option of barge connections.

However, the port's catchment area will be significantly improved with the development of Thailand's Eastern Economic Corridor, a government masterplan which envisages new towns, new infrastructure, a third airport and investment in next generation industry with the focus on robotics, artificial intelligence and biofuels. “This should help drive the future growth of Laem Chabang and our terminal,” said Mr Ashworth.

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