SSA Marine boosts terminal productivity with conservative technology application.
Industry officials are looking at every way possible to improve U.S. port productivity following 18 months of chronic congestion at several major gateways that culminated with damaging labor turmoil on the West Coast.
Container terminals are under great pressure from the advent of 10,000-to-13,000 TEU vessels and new vessel-sharing agreements in the transpacific trade that are concentrating cargo flows over shorter periods of time, and fewer locations, in ways never before imagined.
Ports were unprepared by the changes that coincided with a welcome jump in volume and are now scrambling to upgrade infrastructure and cargo-handling processes.
Using robots to move containers around marine terminals is a sexy topic in maritime circles amidst a growing realization that more sophistication is needed to efficiently handle today’s mega-size container vessels and maintain the smooth flow of goods to businesses and consumers.
But a major West Coast terminal operator and stevedore is taking a more modest, hybrid approach—using technology to improve manual tasks at a fraction of the cost of a completely automated facility.
Seattle-based SSA Marine has seen productivity rise after spending $50 million in recent years on information technology at seven West Coast terminals, but so far is staying away from automating cargo handling.
“We believe that we can produce more lifts than an automated terminal can on the ship and that the manning that’s going to be reduced on the West Coast is not going to pay for the investment,” Edward DeNike, president of SSA Containers, said last December during a Journal of Commerce port conference in Newark, N.J.
Ports around the world are routinely starting to see vessel exchanges in excess of 10,000 TEUs as vessel sizes increase. A key constraint is the amount of available storage on land for containers.
Cranes to support super post-Panamax vessels are almost double the height and outreach (23 containers across), and require three-times the amount of electricity to power them than the previous generation cranes.
A 4,500-TEU Panamax vessel can be loaded and unloaded in a couple of days. Vessel operators often make multiple stops along a coast and only transfer a portion of their cargo, so they can be in an out of port in even less time. But big-ship economics dictates vessels operate on trunk lanes between major hubs, where they can discharge and reload most of their cargo at a single location. To make money, shipowners must achieve about 90 percent capacity utilization and need to be on the move to get as many revenue-bearing trips as possible. Several services to Los Angeles and Long Beach, for example, discharge 80 to 100 percent of their cargo and then stop in Oakland, primarily to pick up export cargo, before heading back to Asia.
An 8,000-TEU vessel requires about 7,000 physical moves. Depending on the number of shifts and cranes utilized, an 8,000-TEU vessel can be turned in about three to 3.5 days, while a 13,000-TEU vessel will likely spend 4.5 to 5 days at berth (assumption: 25 to 30 moves per hour per crane, six to eight cranes, and two daily shifts instead of three), under normal conditions.
“The amount of space and the amount of coordination that is required is only increasing in complexity,” Jack Craig, vice president of global operations for APM Terminals, said at the same event.
Meanwhile, several 18,000-TEU ships are now in service in the Asia-Europe service and carriers have ordered almost two dozen more 18,000-to-19,000 TEU vessels. A 1.8 TEU-to-container ratio means that a vessel this size requires about 17,000 crane lifts to load and unload, according to Walter Kemmsies, chief economist for infrastructure engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol.
“If you try to do this with labor and productivity running below 30 gross moves per hour then you’re going to take more than seven days,” he said in a presentation at a transportation conference in Washington earlier this year. “So you’ve chewed up a whole berth for an entire week.”
Terminals will have to use a just-in-time optimization approach like manufacturers, Kemmsies said, and require 24-hour operations. That means every crane, truck and piece of cargo handling equipment must have sensors and wireless communication on board to collect and transfer data on every movement so they can be monitored in real-time through the terminal operating system.
Craig and Kemmsies said that the big vessels need some automation because it’s not possible to maintain the same work pace without undermining safety and, at a certain point, the more labor thrown at a job undermines productivity because people get in each other’s way.
As ship sizes increase, the problems “don’t grow linearly, they grow exponentially,” Kemmsies said.
Benefits of automation, besides lower labor costs and greater productivity, include safety, greater densification, and lower emissions and noise because vehicles are electric, and fewer damaged containers, according to port developers and operators.
Much attention is currently focused on major automation projects in Southern California, where about a fifth of vessels arriving now are in the 10,000-to-13,000 TEU range. And experts expect container lines to deploy some 18,000-TEU vessels in the transpacific by the end of the decade.
MOL’s TraPac Terminal at the Port of Los Angeles and OOCL’s Long Beach Container Terminal will use automated guided vehicles instead of manned hustlers to shuttle containers between the wharf-side cranes and the container yard, where automated, rail-mounted gantry cranes will stack the containers.
The redevelopment of the TraPac container terminal will bring annual capacity to 2 million TEUs and includes new buildings and structures, a new main gate and secondary gate, a wharf extension and upgrades to existing wharfs, shore-power substations, new cranes and an on-dock intermodal container transfer facility. The work is estimated to cost $510 million. According to a staff report to the Board of Harbor Commissioners a year ago, the use of unmanned straddle carriers and yard cranes at TraPac is likely to reduce the number of longshoremen needed by 40 to 50 percent, which equates to about 160 to 200 jobs.
The modernization of the OOCL facility is part of a nine-year, $1.3 billion expansion project underway to reconfigure two aging Middle Harbor terminals into a single 305-acre footprint with better operational characteristics. Automation is part of the project’s first phase.
The most technologically advanced terminal in the United States at the moment is Global Container Terminals in Bayonne, N.J., which last June completed a four-year, $325 million expansion that includes 20 semi-automated, rail-mounted gantry cranes for backlands storage, high-tech truck processing gates and sophisticated software that integrates with the terminal operating system.
The automation pioneer in the United States is privately-held Virginia International Gateway at the Port of Virginia, which opened in 2007 and was originally developed and owned by APM Terminals. Ship-to-shore cranes there average 35 to 40 moves per hour.
Both Global and VIG operate two cranes on each rail section that can move across eight rows of containers. The facilities use manual straddle carriers to transport boxes to and from the ship side and the container yard transfer zones.
Global officials say the better speed of the landside system, after a transition period, eventually will take productivity of ship-to-shore cranes from 25 to 27 lifts per hour to 35 to 40 lifts—similar to VIG—because the two operations will be better synchronized.
SSA’s Targeted Approach. The challenges faced by terminals and recent trends would seem to suggest that highly automated terminals are the way to go for terminal managers, but SSA Marine officials are skeptical that huge investments in mechanized cargo-handling systems that sort and stack containers, and carry out ship, rail and truck handoffs, will pay off anytime soon.
Cargo volumes, potential labor savings and productivity gains are not enough to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars for automated vehicles, based on SSA’s business situation, DeNike said.
For $50 million, SSA selectively deployed technology to enhance operations at seven terminals from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California and recaptured the investment within 18 to 24 months through increased productivity, the head of SSA’s West Coast container division, explained in a follow-up interview.
“We concentrated on the conventional way of doing things with some automation,” primarily to improve clerical functions and messaging on the docks, he said.
But don’t mistake being prudent with aversion to technology. SSA Marine is actually out front with one of the world’s first semi-automated, ship-to-shore cranes that is currently undergoing field trials at its Long Beach facility.
SSA is an independent terminal operator, meaning it isn’t a subsidiary of an ocean carrier that can count on the parent company to keep it busy with in-house freight. TraPac and Long Beach Container Terminal belong to larger transportation organizations.
“Maybe they’ve got a captive audience where they think they can get the kind of volume to pay for it, but we feel a terminal is going to take over 2 million containers a year to have a shot at paying for that automation,” DeNike said.
He insisted SSA will be able to outperform the gleaming new facilities because they will not be able to meet expectations.
“We feel productivity on the ships is going to have to be 40 moves an hour. . . We haven’t seen an automated terminal that has really improved ship productivity,” the SSA executive said. “In fact,” he added in the interview, “no one we know that uses them has equaled the productivity they had before, so the money to set up the terminal for automated guided vehicles is not worthwhile in our opinion.”
SSA is already outpacing most West Coast terminals in terms of productivity, moving 33 to 35 boxes an hour compared to the West Coast average of about 25 to 28 moves per hour, and DeNike claimed the company can consistently reach 40 moves per hour with the automated ship cranes.
SSA’s Pacific Container Terminal, located on Pier J at the Port of Long Beach, raised its crane productivity from an average of 25 moves per hour in 2011 to between 33 and 36 moves per hour, while Terminal A improved from 28 to 33 moves per hour, according to the company and the port authority last summer.
Officials project PCT and Terminal A will handle 1.5 million and 1 million TEUs, respectively, this year.
On May 17, a single crane at PCT moved 534 containers in a single shift, averaging 66 lifts per hour. A few days later, a crane at Pier A averaged 61 moves per hour. PCT also hit 1,938 moves for the entire day using six gangs, a figure that translates to 40.4 lifts per hour.
The stevedore, which also operates a terminal for U.S. liner Matson, achieved similar rates again in late November.
Several changes, in addition to technology, enabled the terminals to improve productivity, including better work conditions and opening up a second parking lot for longshoremen so they don’t lose 30 minutes per shift when buses bringing in crews wait for on-dock trains to pass.
But the key factor, according to DeNike, is modifying the crane’s handling characteristics and tempo. When sections of 20-foot containers are worked the crane’s 40-foot spreader bar is adjusted to pick up two 20-footers at once. Plus, the two spreaders double cycle, meaning that one spreader discharges an import load while the other picks up an outbound load from the back of a shuttle car so the crane never goes in any direction with an empty spreader. About 20 to 30 percent of all lifts involve 20-foot units and using “twin 20s” enables the cranes to move 50 boxes an hour, which brings up the overall productivity.
“We’ve never seen automated guided vehicles be able to support that,” DeNike said.
Every extra container per hour of average productivity adds about $5 to the bottom line. Going from 30 to 31 moves at a terminal that does 1 million TEUs, for example, saves about $4.5 million a year. A three-container-per-hour improvement to 33 containers would generate about $13.5 million, the SSA Containers chief said.
Beyond the discrepancy in efficiency, advocates of automation in Southern California appear to have overestimated how much labor they can get rid of, DeNike said.
A certain amount of longshoremen will always be needed because some jobs, such as lashers who deal with the container tie-downs on the vessel deck and front men who twist and untwist the four locking cones on each container, can’t be replaced by machines.
And, then, there’s the matter of the coastwise contract with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Manning rules require management to order a certain amount of workers even if they aren’t all needed. Under the contract, for example, ship cranes operated by remote control must still have two crane drivers.
“So you can automate all you want,” DeNike said, “but the union is not going to change that.”
The only potential reductions come in the form of hustler drivers—the people who drive the yard tractors bringing containers to and from the ship and the lift equipment in the yard. Automated vehicles would require six to eight fewer drivers per crane, “but to do that your production has to increase dramatically and we have a concern it will not increase,” DeNike said. And, he added, the driver reductions don’t come close to providing the necessary return on investment.
“We believe that working with the ILWU that we can do 40 an hour” with the existing system, he stressed.
Gate Innovation. As with most container facilities, SSA has automated processing of trucks at the entrance and exit gates, but with a unique twist: a centralized gate for multiple terminals.
The days of truckers handing over their transaction documents and driver’s licenses to someone in a manned booth are over. In most large ports, a small number of clerks sit in an office near the gates and electronically process the trucks.
In recent years, terminal operators like SSA have integrated real-time location, inventory and gate systems with terminal operating systems that make decisions about which assets and personnel to deploy for each container move in the yard.
The truck gates are outfitted with stanchions that hold optical character recognition (OCR) technology for reading container numbers, as well as radio frequency identification devices (RFID) and license plate readers to identify the truck, and help speed drivers in and out.
Although OCR is ubiquitous at ports, fewer terminals have built sheds around their portals to ensure better reads of container numbers. SSA spent about $1 million dollars for each shed to reduce glare and rain, and protect the gear, and gets about 95 percent accuracy compared to an accuracy rate in the mid-80s for uncovered lanes. Global Terminals at the Port of New York and New Jersey also has a drive-through building to control the lighting. Global uses cameras, too, to conduct remote damage inspection of containers and chassis.
SSA no longer has any clerks at its truck gates. The company operates three large terminals in Long Beach and in 2012 it consolidated that work in an office several miles away to improve efficiency. Fiber-optic cable for voice, video and data made possible the remote operation of receiving and delivery gates, which process more than 35,000 truck moves per week, John DiBernardo, an SSA vice president, said.
The system was developed by sister company Tideworks Technology.
DeNike said the system allows SSA to better utilize the clerks because each terminal has peaks and valleys in traffic. Now there is less downtime and more flexibility for clerks to support the busier gates.
SSA’s goal is to eliminate as much human interaction as possible, especially since many drayage drivers have a hard time speaking English and can take a while getting through checkpoints unless there is a bilingual clerk to help them.
Out gates are fully automated for routine loads. Upon arrival, the driver verbally provides the booking number to the central gate clerk via a kiosk. Most of the pertinent data is collected by the OCR and RFID readers, as well as truck scales. The clerk knows which trucking company he or she drives for and whether the company is authorized to pull a particular ocean carrier’s freight. The driver then receives instructions on where to go in the yard to retrieve the container. SSA, unlike most terminals, is paperless. Instead of printing a ticket, the assigned bay is flashed on a screen for the driver to jot down.
At the bay, an antenna on a nearby rubber-tired gantry crane—equipment that can drive over containers six wide with a spreader bar that trolleys back and forth—reads the truck’s RFID tag. The terminal operating system associates the truck and booking number with the appropriate container and highlights it with a colored halo on the in-cab mobile display unit. The longshoreman operating the equipment, also referred to as a transtainer, pulls the container out of the stack and lays it on the trucker’s chassis. RFID readers and OCR equipment at the exit portal collect information off the truck again and the terminal-operating system compares all the data to make sure everything matches. If it does, the traffic arm rises to allow the truck to depart.
To improve efficiency, the mobile display unit shows colored icons of containers the crane operator must move in the near future so that when digging out the container for immediate delivery it avoids covering up the other ones so they can be easily grabbed. The system is an improvement over having people on radios telling crane operators which containers to put on which trucks.
SSA officials also want to streamline the in-gate process for trucks delivering export loads to the port. The idea is for the trucking company to input data, such as the container and seal numbers, directly into the terminal’s operating system through a web-based interface prior to arrival so the terminal doesn’t have to key in the information. Officials say the procedure would speed up truck processing and minimize trips to the “trouble window” for truckers who show up without the necessary information.
SSA has had to back off implementation after a local arbitrator sided with the union that the process improperly transferred work under union jurisdiction. DeNike said SSA hopes to win on appeal to a coastal arbitrator, noting the current contract allows for the free flow of information without duplication from an outside source. If the company loses, the compromise will be for the clerk to input the data ahead of time rather than wait until each trucker arrives, he said.
A simple innovation at SSA is the use of LED signs on top of hustlers. OCR devices on ship cranes identify each container lifted and wirelessly transmit the data to the terminal operating system, which is synchronized with mobile display units in shuttle vehicles and informs drivers where to deliver the container. The LED signs provide an external visual of the system’s instructions to supervisors on the ground. The system corrected problems the terminal had with some drivers getting lost.
The LED display was also developed because transtainers experienced unacceptable delays between the time a reader picked up the hustler’s RFID tag and the in-cab display showed the planned decking spot for the container. The delay was eliminated by displaying the location on top of the cab where the crane operator can easily see it. And, on loading out to a vessel, the sequence of moves is displayed so the hustler drivers can see where they should be in the queue leading to the crane.
SSA was also one of the first terminals last year to experiment with the “peel-off” or “free-flow” concept under which blocks of import containers for large shippers are segregated in the yard and several truckers are dispatched to accept the container at the top of the stack instead of having the terminal hunt for a particular box. It’s a first-in, first-out system. The truck drivers then shuttle back and forth to a nearby depot with more flexible hours and less congestion so other truckers can take the loads to local warehouses.
Video Game Crane. SSA has heavily invested the past two years in software to automate one of its big ship-to-shore cranes at Terminal A. It’s a fairly new concept, which is also being replicated at APM Terminals’ new, ultra-modern Maasvlatke II facility at the Port of Rotterdam.
The main reason for the move, DeNike said, is that cranes are getting so tall—up to 160 feet—that depth perception is compromised, making it difficult for crane drivers to clearly see what they are doing while trying to achieve higher work rates.
SSA developed the software program itself so it would not be beholden to a crane manufacturer that might not meet all its needs, Vice President Paul Gagnon said.
The laser-guided, semi-automated crane essentially drives itself with the push of a button and can be operated with a driver in the cab or in the comfort of a remote office.
At the beginning of the shift, the operator designates the bay to be worked. The laser makes a pass across the ship to scan the bay and map its contours, as well as the center of the stacks. To discharge a container, the operator pushes a button to designate the end point and hits a pedal. The crane, which remembers all the targets, travels to the spot and hovers about one meter above the container, at which point the operator, assisted by a half-dozen sophisticated cameras, uses a joystick to set the spreader down on the container, lock it and hoist it one meter up, where the crane automatically takes over and the process is repeated in reverse to set the container on the bed of a yard tractor.
The semi-automated crane always takes the most efficient arc over the ship. As the stacks of containers on deck are reduced the spreader bar can move in a more direct line to its next assignment, going vertically and diagonally at the same time rather than moving along a 90 degree angle.
SSA doesn’t believe there is a great difference in operating speed between an automated crane and one manned by an experienced crane operator. The benefit, SSA officials said, is realized when there are less skilled or experienced crane drivers who aren’t as familiar with the equipment.
Longshoremen technically aren’t employees of particular terminals. They are paid by the collective bargaining arm for terminal operators, the Pacific Maritime Association, and are dispatched by the ILWU. Longshoremen often opt to work at different terminals, or take days off, so there isn’t always consistency in the skill level of workers who show up day to day. And even among full-time workers, or steadies, who regularly report to the same site there are differences in ability among crane operators.
The new crane technology “is like putting an automatic transmission in a truck. It does the shifting for you,” Gagnon said.
Automated cranes also provide a more forgiving environment for crane operators, which will reduce the number of worker’s compensation claims, DeNike said.
Working from an office is easier on the body because in the cab the operator is subject to intense acceleration and deceleration forces as it goes from 0 to 20 mph in four seconds. The driver spends a lot of time too bent over looking through the glass floor. And most crane operators tend to be older, having risen through the union’s seniority system to win the most coveted of longshoremen’s jobs.
Gagnon said that with men out of the cab the crane can be operated at full speed without fear of injury.
SSA is doing about 30 moves an hour in the automated setup, less than its standard cranes at the moment, but DeNike expressed confidence that once all the technology adjustments and training have been completed 40 moves or more an hour will be achieved.
“We’re really happy with the way it’s working, and we feel that’s the future. It’s going to take a different type of crane driver, maybe one who likes video games and that kind of thing,” he said.
The company will still use two crane drivers, because that is mandated by the union contract.
“The ILWU is buying in on what we are trying to do because they realize that we’re not going to be reducing the manning that possibly a complete automated terminal would. And the way we’re going to be able to combat that is simple productivity,” DeNike said.
“I have to say that when we have a non-contract year and we’re working together with the ILWU, the productivity is very good. And the ILWU has stepped up to the plate. We believe 40 moves an hour is very achievable,” if we can get the automated cranes in place, he added.
During the nine-month labor negotiations on the West Coast the crane’s remote functionality was turned off because the ILWU wanted a new contract in place before finalizing an agreement on how to implement the SSA technology.
SSA has yet to determine when it might go to a full-remote operation, Gagnon said. More testing is necessary under live conditions and any decisions where operators will sit will likely vary by area of operation.
This article was published in the April 2015 issue of American Shipper.