The advancement of technology has introduced new and better methods of controlling ports and terminals. The gradual shift towards implementing automation in all the process flows and operations conducted on ports has led to significant changes in the way maritime trade takes place.
Today, we study the advantages and disadvantages of port automation for maritime trade, the impact it has had, and what the future portends for these smart ports.
First, let us understand what exactly port automation means.
Port Automation – The Basics
Port automation can be defined as the use of integrated technology to develop intelligent solutions for efficient control of traffic and trade flows on the port thereby increasing port capacity and port efficiency.
Smart ports (or automated ports) generally deploy cloud-based software to assist in creating the operational flows that help the port function smoothly. Currently, most of the ports across the world have technology integrated to some extent, if not for complete management. However, there has been a gradual increase in the number of smart ports, thanks to global government initiatives and the exponential growth of maritime trade.
The port of Hamburg, Germany is one such smart port that uses cloud-based solutions for managing energy resources, traffic control, infrastructure facilities, and port property for efficient port operation.
Closer home, the port of Kandla, Gujarat is set to be India’s first smart port city, as announced by the Indian Government. These efforts are in line with India’s vision to create a country of smart ports, cities, and smart hospitals and increase maritime trade through the new and old ports built and modernized under the Sagarmala project.
The degree of automation differs from port to port, depending on the capacity of the port, its location, the amount of cargo it handles, and its economic value. With the growth of mega-ports, the scope of port automation has increased to an unprecedented level.
Here is an overview of what smart ports cover.
The Scope of Port Automation
The evolution of port automation is seen across different avenues. These include material unloading and cargo handling equipment, digitization of ship records, inventory management, building the necessary infrastructure, assisting ship docking and maintenance, and more.
Generally, there are three principal areas of port automation – the gates, the Ship-to-Shore cranes, and the stacks.
- Automation at port gates
Port gates are a key checkpoint for identifying and recording every entity entering or leaving the port. For ships, it also includes additional security checks, verification, customs, immigration, and quarantine. These are crucial tasks, necessary to protect the integrity of the port and require implementation of stringent security measures.
As the volume of container traffic through the port increases, these processes consume a lot of extra time, on account of manual limitations. Automating basic processes, such as entry/exit logs, verification, and docking payments can be done with the help of relevant technology. This makes the entire process flow much smoother and well-organized.
- Ship-to-shore cranes
Logistics management with IoT comes into action during the ship to shore delivery of cargo transported by ships. Use of both, manned and unmanned cranes for unloading is currently prevalent. Across the globe, there are only 30 terminals that can be considered fully automated, when it comes to container transportation.
Automated cranes are used to deliver the containers from the ships to the port by means of unmanned horizontal transportation or unmanned yard cranes. These are later classified by the type of cargo and stacked accordingly in the inventory. These containers handling systems are stable, predictable, and highly efficient. As the cranes are controlled by a computer, the planning and execution process becomes extremely smooth, achieving the required outcomes in the least possible time.
- Stacks and Inventory
Once the cargo has been offloaded on the port, it is time for the robots to step in. Cargo handlers and stacking cranes are used to stack the containers as per the category specified. The inventory is often managed by the date of departure inland. As the container is to be dispatched for further transportation, robots are once again used to bring them to the designated station and prep them for the road ahead.
Safety is one of the major concerns while designing the robotic equipment used to assist in cargo transportation. Smart design takes into account the level of human-machine interaction involved. In addition, the entire process is analysed to optimize inventory flow and ensure that there is no friction between multiple processes.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Port Automation
Technology has wrought an enormous change in the way ports function today. Automated systems, advanced navigation software, remotely-operated cranes, and huge robotic cargo handlers have enhanced port efficiency. But there is the proverbial other side of the coin as well.
As the use of technology increases, the role of human labour suffers in comparison. In addition, potential cyber-attacks by people with malicious intentions are a consistent threat.
Port automation is seen as the future, but is it worth the cost? Let us objectively analyse the pros and cons of smart ports to find the answer.
Pros of Port Automation:
- Better Control Over Port Emissions
As we have seen previously, automation of mundane processes improves the process efficiency. Manual errors and delays are eliminated, increasing the number of ships that can be handled by the port. Increased efficiency helps maintain the cap on port emissions, thus conforming to environmental regulations.
- Saving of Time and Resources
Operational efficiency ensures that every process is optimized for least time consumption. As a result, the time saved due to process automation is enormous.Statistics show that ports can save up to 30% of time spent in ship management with automation, which directly translates into saving of resources.
- Improved Stability
The sensors and other electronic equipment used in planning port operations result in high stability of processes. Speed and safety are both taken care of, making automated processes tidier than conventional process flows.
- Long-term Benefits
Once fixed in place, automated systems do not need to be monitored frequently. The port is free from manual interference and is able to function smoothly for many years. The flexibility of the processes ensures that any changes necessary can be made and executed immediately.
Cons of Port Automation:
- High Capital Investment Costs
The initial investment cost of automation is extremely high. These costs are not affordable for every port, especially in the under-developed and developing nations. As a result, a compromised version of semi-automated ports having technology as a secondary support for manual labour is brought into practice.
- Pushback from Labour Unions
Automation eliminates the human factor involved in the process. This results in the loss of employment of many workers. Labour unions do not react well to automated systems, for obvious reasons. The transition from employed workers to employed supervisors can be difficult and can create problems during the implementation of automation.
- Cyber Security Risks
Cyber security is a growing threat for mega-ports with complete or almost-complete automation. Despite having secure information sharing methods, automated systems are susceptible to malware attacks and loss of sensitive data. A breach in security can result in great losses for the port and is hence a problem with port automation.
- High Maintenance Costs
Automated systems need to be updated at regular intervals, to keep up with advancements in the software used. Ignoring updates can result in fatal security breaches, which is why all systems need to be upgraded. This implies continuous maintenance costs for ports.
After having analysed the advantages and disadvantages of port automation, it is evident that a healthy mix of human and technological contribution is a must in all processes. The strength of technology augmented by human intelligence can help design effective solutions for enhanced port automation.
Port automation should be taking into account the needs of shipping companies as well as the companies whose cargo is actually being transported across the seas. Technology has been immensely helpful in improving the order and operational productivity of ports.
It is important that ship manufacturers in India integrate technology into boat design for increasing the efficiency even further.
What are your thoughts on port automation? Drop a comment to let us know!