How technology and “automatisms” make our terminals fit for the future

Increasing autonomy at freight terminals

Whether it involves trucks, containers, trains or ships, the automation of loading and unloading processes is quickly gaining ground – because under the right conditions, it promises faster workflows, greater work safety and cost reductions. However, a few things still need to be considered. We’ll take a look at automated loading systems, damage scanners and “robot ports”.

Automated loading of containers and trucks

Numerous logistics solutions rely on containers and trucks. In many places, workers load these manually with lift trucks or forklifts. This is the ideal solution when it comes to trucks picking up pallets from a curb, for example. However, if a container or truck must be fully loaded from a warehouse, automated systems can significantly increase efficiency while also avoiding workplace accidents.

A good example: the TRAPO loading system. This is an autonomously operating “autoloader” with a length of 4.30m and height of 1.30m that has a load capacity of up to 3.6 tons. Pallets are loaded onto a stationary part and then automatically lined up next to each other. Then the mobile loading unit picks up the entire row and loads it into the truck or container, while pallets are already being reloaded onto the back of the stationary part. This continuous process not only saves time, the autonomous system also bypasses any obstacles and automatically compensates for height differences. For a 13-meter trailer with a capacity of 33 pallets, for example, the fully automated loading takes about 15 minutes. It’s a very simple principle, and yet it is quite futuristic, as you can see in this video.

The TRAPO loading system in full effect

Use of scanning

One system that is also increasingly used in train terminals is Optical Character Recognition (OCR). By now it is applied not only for the automatic detection of incoming trucks but also to identify containers on a train. This process captures the number and position of containers and even scans them for any damage. Compared to having an employee walk through a train for an inspection, this reduces time and costs in what is already a potentially dangerous task. As a result, the terminal can be alerted quickly to any loading errors and can respond immediately.

These automated processes are already being used at several large train terminals in Europe: at the Busto Arsizio-Gallarate in Italy, the Austrian Wiencont Terminal that relies on the intermodality of trains, roads and ships, and the German Duisport, which is constantly developing new solutions to automate processes.

Staying on track on tracks

The automated loading and unloading of trains is more complicated. The current system of using manually placed bolts to secure containers stands in the way of full automation. Other locking systems are also incompatible with the automated loading of differently sized containers. However, since these kinds of tasks are (still) being performed by humans, the automation of loading cranes also poses a challenge. This is because highly developed sensors and detection technologies are needed to reliably prevent accidents. Although these are already available, they aren’t widespread enough to establish themselves successfully, which means that they aren’t fully accepted yet – at least in Europe.

“Thinking big” in the USA and China

Another factor that is slowing down comprehensive automation is that the startup investments are higher than with conventional equipment. From the current perspective, a conversion is certainly more costly, and train terminals generally have fewer monetary resources than large port terminals. Here the USA has an advantage. The development and use of automation technologies is more advanced there, since freight trains as well as train terminals are much larger overseas than in Europe. The benefits of complete automation are realized more quickly there, and the technologies are used on a larger scale.

According to industry experts, however, the use of automated processes will also expand in European train terminals in the next 5 to 10 years. If automation becomes more widespread here as well, after a certain point this development will accelerate even more on its own.

Similar plans are being rolled out in Chengdu, an important hub for freight train traffic between China and Europe. This is where the first fully automated international train terminal in China is being planned. They expect 85% of the processes to be automated, so that the terminal can handle a transshipment volume of 1.5 million containers and the process efficiency will rise by 30%.

Full and partial automation in port terminals

Automation in ports is already at a more advanced stage. For about ten years, the number of partially and fully automated ports has been growing significantly – and yet only 1% of the port terminals are now fully automated and 2% partially automated worldwide. Australia leads the ranking with three port terminals each, followed by the Netherlands and South Korea.
The difference between full and partial automation is that the former has automated processes for movements on shore as well as those between shore and dock, while the latter has these in only one of those two areas.

Barcelona’s partially automated terminal, called BEST, is considered one of the most productive ports in the world, with more than 220 movements per hour and ship and more than 40 per hour and crane. Eleven cranes can load or unload even the largest container ships, while 48 automated stacking cranes and two rail-guided bridge cranes work on the 80-hectare site with 1,500 meters of ship berths with a depth of 16.5 meters. This shows that full automation isn’t mandatory in order to be efficient and productive. Some experts believe that such automation would actually detract from the flexibility that is increasingly expected from port terminals. Moreover, autonomous machines can’t always respond perfectly to unforeseen events.

Yangshan port is the world's largest automated port

Full automation in Rotterdam and Shanghai

The ECT Delta Terminal (HPH) in the port of Rotterdam, for example, has been considered a pioneer in automation since the 1990s. By now a fleet of 265 autonomous, driverless vehicles is transporting containers between ships and the stacking yard. Here the containers are also picked up by 137 autonomous stacking cranes and brought to the right places. The autonomous vehicles have sensors to avoid collisions in unforeseen situations. In water with a depth of up to 16.6m, even large container ships (with over 10,000 TEU) can dock here and be loaded or unloaded by cranes.

Shanghai’s port catches up

The port of Shanghai is considered the largest port in the world and Asia’s most important transport hub. Over 40 million TEU are moved from shore to ship and vice versa here each year. The port has invested billions in converting to autonomous technology since 2014. The first fully automated terminal in the Yangshan Deepwater Port with seven berths on an approximately 2 km wide dock opened in 2017. 130 driverless vehicles are handling the container transport; the stacking is also performed by robots. Only nine people are still actually present, continuously monitoring the loading processes inside a central control room. In these kinds of facilities, the coordination between the loading crane and the ship moving in a swell is a particular challenge. In Yangshan, an AI system coordinates the operation of the loading crane by detecting all four corners of a container. This enables the autonomous crane to get a precise handle on the box and then load it onto an autonomous port vehicle. Since laser scans and positioning techniques have made it possible for autonomous vehicles and cranes to move in absolute darkness, containers can be handled around the clock.

It’s clear that the future belongs to autonomous loading and unloading in freight traffic. This development is undisputed – but how quickly and extensively it will progress remains to be seen in the next few years. Feats of engineering are certainly guaranteed!