The visionary

Gerlinde John is a pragmatic visionary. For more than 20 years, she has played a key role in driving forward the automation of the Port of Hamburg. “We need to use cutting-edge automation technology wherever it helps us become more efficient,” the engineering graduate says.

At the HHLA Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA), this ambition has become a reality. The facility, which went into operation in 2002, is largely automated. For many years, it served as a blueprint for other terminal operators around the world.

John can quite rightly be proud of what took shape on the drawing board – and was built – at Altenwerder at the turn of the millennium. Even after the CTA had long been operational, competitors from around the world kept a close eye on developments at the Port of Hamburg. 

Gerlinde John was aware of their interest. “Staying one step ahead of the others is what makes this job so exciting and appealing!” In the early days, many people doubted it was possible to realise such an ambitious project. “But not in our team!” says John. “We all did pioneering work together and wanted to get the terminal up and running.”

At HHLA, there are many people like John, who has been enthusiastic about new logistics and technical solutions her whole life. And the port has long ceased to be a domain for men. John studied Transportation Sciences during the East German era. Using analogue mainframe computers, she investigated systems for managing transportation. In 1982, she started work at the science and technology centre of the Deutsche Seereederei in Rostock, the national shipping company of the former GDR. There, she worked on developing a partially automated container terminal for the Port of Rostock.

“That was one of my most exciting projects,” John reminisces. But the fall of the Wall put a stop to the work; the flow of goods changed, and container ships soon started to bypass Rostock. John’s expertise in the field of automated container handling was a stroke of luck for HHLA. The company was impressed by the East German’s in-depth knowledge and recruited her to work on the CTA, which was under construction.

In addition to many other innovations for which there was no global precedent at the time, a control centre was scheduled for construction at Altenwerder. Software had to be used to control and link automated container transporters and storage blocks as productively as possible.

Of course, at first there were plenty of problems to be solved in this completely new IT world. And the first idea didn’t always work out right away. John became a force of encouragement.  “Whenever we thought things were going wonderfully, we were suddenly faced with new challenges. But we kept having new ideas!” 

The further development of the CTA became John’s life’s work. She could have retired in 2020, but the energetic engineer has postponed that for now. The prospect of developing something new one more time was too tempting. 

On HHLA’s behalf, she coordinates the work in the joint venture with US company HyperloopTT. The partners are working together to develop a solution for a transfer station through which containers automatically enter the Hyperloop tube system. A model is due to be presented at the ITS World Congress in Hamburg in autumn 2021. And Gerlinde John will not be out of ideas when this project is finished.