The future is vertical: Automated high-bay racking technology for entire containers

BoxBay sets new standards in port logistics

Have you ever wanted to make better use of existing storage capacities by racking up containers? That is exactly the purpose of the pilot project BoxBay, at the Jebel Ali port in the United Arab Emirates. Yes, you read that correctly – high-bay racking of entire containers! The new high-bay racking system for intermodal containers has completed an extensive testing phase and is now ready for the global market. A perfect way to save space, increase flexibility and improve "user-friendliness".

As the global shipping volume continues to grow unabated, expanding storage space is a top priority for port logistics. The majority of all existing container port facilities are located close to heavily populated cities. For this reason as well as due to their historical significance, many have reached the limit of their growth – there is hardly any space for more storage. What is there to do? That’s right. It’s time to reach for the sky.


More space is essential

The global transport volume, as well as the size of the shipping vessels themselves, has grown immensely over recent decades, posing more than one challenge to port facilities. While a container ship could transport about 8,000 TEU at the turn of the millennium, twenty years later, ships are designed for three times this capacity, or roughly 24,000 TEU. Using the method of stacking containers directly atop one another, conventional storage systems are havin increasing difficulty completing the operations quickly and accurately. As a result, the unloading and loading of containers generally takes several days, which translates directly into longer delivery times for the goods. In other words, port operators and carriers are struggling with increasingly expensive and time-consuming operations in addition to a lack of space.


From “coils” to BoxBay

One solution to these difficulties may now have come from an international joint venture of DP World, the world’s largest operator of container ports, and the SMS Group, a German specialist in industrial technology. Together, these two companies are the first in the industry to have developed an intelligent solution that revolutionizes how containers are moved about in ports. This innovation is the high-bay racking system called BoxBay. The goal of the joint venture is to integrate these fully automated high-bay racks into container terminals around the world. No one can deny that the time has come for autonomous and automated technologies in logistics

The BoxBay technology originated with SMS Group subsidiary AMOVA, which is specialized in high-bay racks for the transshipment of large coils of sheet steel, which are stored and transported in rolled form. AMOVA designed a 50 meter tall rack system that can hold about 50 tons of coils. The project proved a success in practice, and the insights it yielded were therefore incorporated into BoxBay.


But what actually is BoxBay?

BoxBay is a newly developed storage system that – to put it simply – creates tall stacks of containers. That might not sound like such a revolutionary innovation at first. But this specially designed high-bay racking system makes use of a clever and environmentally friendly solution that stores containers in individual bays of an eleven-story steel rack structure. The containers are not stacked directly atop each other in the usual way. They are each placed in their own box, which allows them to be accessed separately. There are no delays when, for example, the container in row 3, level 5 must be moved separately from the two containers located above it. With the current method, those two containers would also have to be put somewhere else in order to move the desired container. This explains how the new racking system is expected to reduce the space requirements in terminals by 70 percent. Not only that, but the number of container moves is reduced by 65 percent compared with simple stacking.

The "BoxBay" in full effect

High flexibility and major time savings

As soon as the ships deliver the containers to the port, they are unloaded with gantry cranes and transported by automated or manned vehicles to the high-bay racking facility. This can be done with traditional semitrailers, straddle carriers or even unmanned transport systems. After arriving at the high-bay racking facility, the containers are shifted by fully integrated, electrically powered stacker cranes, which can store or withdraw containers from the bays without the need to move any other containers. Transfer locations can be situated on any of the four sides of the racking system, ensuring a high level of flexibility. Consider this example calculation: With a facility 700 m long and 50 stacker cranes, over 500 water-side and 300 land-side container movements can be completed per hour.

This should get the attention of the world’s major ports since cargo ships are becoming ever larger and transshipment costs aren’t getting any lower. Several days are sometimes needed to unload the cargo, and “storing” the containers can take nearly as long. Every hour saved is as good as cash for the carrier and port operator, not to mention the faster delivery of the goods.

The system has another advantage that could make it a popular purchase for many ports: The high-bay racking system can be used anywhere and scaled to suit any terminal. It can be modularly expanded and always guarantees direct access to each and every container.


Contribution to a sustainable future

Alongside the increased storage capacity and intelligent technology, BoxBay also impresses with its potential for environmentally friendly operation. The system offers a number of advantages for both ports and the environment: energy recovery systems are capable of generating electricity as containers are moved. Plus, the entire system is intended to be powered by solar cells on the roof, which actually deliver significantly more energy than needed for operation, according to the manufacturer. In other words, this type of energy supply would make the high-bay racking facility CO2-negative. That is one more step towards decarbonizing the supply chain.

Another benefit is that – thanks to automation – the rack need not be illuminated, and the noise level is also kept to a minimum with sound-absorbing panels on the side. Even when situated in an urban area, a multi-story high-bay racking facility would not contribute excessively to noise or light pollution.


Test phase and go-live

The first full-sized BoxBay high-bay racking facility was erected at the Jebel Ali port and tested for a period of six months. After a great many tests and associated adjustments, the performance was improved still further and the estimated future investment costs minimized. The manufacturer also expects the operating costs to continue to decrease – the energy consumption was lowered by 29% during the test phase alone. According to current figures, 792 containers can be stored in the facility at the same time, and over 80,000 container movements have been completed since its commissioning in 2020. The first BoxBay storage system is fit for the future and ready to go.

Having completed its test phase, the most important performance factors for such a system were not only met, they were exceeded. Now we only have to wait and see when BoxBay will be used at other ports and whether this promising system can prove itself on the global market!