Automation and digitalisation the answers to market volatility

Automation and digitalisation remain the best way for ports to handle increased container volumes and preparing ports and terminals for unforeseen events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the obstruction of the Suez Canal.
Automation and digitalisation the answers to market volatility

The initial chaos of the pandemic saw a considerable drop in global consumption, which was followed by a rapid increase in manufacturing output in Southeast Asia caused by a surge in demand from North America and Europe. The volatility has made planning port operations and managing supply chains more difficult.

Speaking exclusively to PTI ahead of the Container Terminal Automation Conference 2021 (CTAC 2021), Stephen Ashworth, Managing Director, Hutchison Ports Thailand (HPT), said recent events have demonstrated how technology can improve port and terminal operations.

 “There is no question that automation is the way forward to cope with increasing volumes, productivity related demands from our shipping line customers and unforeseen events such as the current COVID pandemic or a sudden shift in trade patterns caused by supply chain disruptions,” Ashworth said.

While Hutchison Ports saw year-on-year (YoY) declines in traffic in most of its Southeast Asian container terminal operations in 2020, the beginning of 2021 has witnessed “a significant increase in volumes” at several of the Group’s Southeast Asian ports, resulting in some instances of congestion, according to Ashworth.

“At our terminals at Thailand’s Laem Chabang Port operating under Hutchison Ports Thailand for instance, we are now seeing strong volume growth in most long haul east-west and intra- Asia services,” Ashworth said and attributed this to booming consumer markets.

The uptick in volumes have made terminal planning and operations “very challenging” and this has been driven by what Ashworth described as the “domino effect of vessel delays”.

Combined with the obstruction of the Suez Canal in March 2021, which Ashworth said did not significantly affect HPT, the continuing uncertainty shows how automation technology can help maintain productivity.

“If you also take into consideration the pandemic and the potential for supply chain disruptions, you do begin to see how the implementation of technology to our operations and processes can help to safely increase terminal productivity and mitigate the risk of unforeseen events such as the pandemic.”

HPT is rolling out a digital platform to “integrate and control the entire scope” of its operations, including yard and gate usage, overall monitoring and equipment utilisation at Terminal D, the most advanced deep-sea hub in Thailand.

Opened in 2019, Terminal D’s Phase 1 is now fully operational with 1,000 metres of berth space, six super post-panamax STS cranes and 20 RTG cranes, all of which are operated remotely. Existing Phase 1 capacity is approximately 1.2 million TEU and once all remaining phases of Terminal D are fully completed, annual throughput capacity will be 3.5 million TEU.

Ashworth explained that all current and future ship-to-shore (STS) and rubber tyred gantry (RTG) cranes will be operated using remote control technology. Furthermore, HPT is currently piloting six autonomous, driverless trucks as part of the “overall technology transformation”.

The terminal, according to Ashworth, has “already created and strived for technological advancement that enables the realisation of real benefits for shipping customers, port users and operations”.

“The use of such technology has improved overall accuracy and safety and has significantly reduced the level of carbon emissions.

“We are also seeing gradual improvements to berth productivity from the remote-control STS cranes.

“In addition, we are considering the deployment of automated, driverless trucks at Terminal D and, in this regard, we are currently piloting six such trucks to ascertain whether this will be technically and operationally feasible.”

Ashworth said these trucks are equipped with a smart operating system and a system of radars, cameras, and sensors to detect its surrounding environment and prevent accidental collisions.

The results of the pilot programme have been “encouraging” and so far, 12,000 containers have been successfully loaded onto and discharged from vessels by the autonomous trucks, according to Ashworth.

“Finally, we are rolling out a programme of digitalizing of our landside processes at Terminal D and at our other terminals at Laem Chabang.

“This includes the automation of our gate procedures to become paperless with the driver holding a pre-cleared card which can be swiped in a machine at the gate in which our terminal operating system will immediately recognise them.

“We have also implemented a system of issuing electronic invoices to our customers which has significantly reduced paper usage and are now rolling out an electronic payment system and, working with our major shipping line customers, an electronic delivery order (e-DO) system via the Global Shipping Business Network blockchain platform.”

It has been suggested by numerous industry experts that the pandemic will and has already caused an acceleration in technological innovation and research.

However, Ashworth told PTI that HPT’s upgrade at Terminal D started “way before” the pandemic because, as it was a greenfield site, Hutchison Ports was able to plan and design the terminal in full at the beginning of construction.

Terminal D’s berth design and crane sizes already allow it handle the largest ocean-going vessels currently in operation, and with the “simultaneous introduction of technology”, it will become more efficient in the future and capable of handling even larger ships.

May 24, 2021 12:09