Human and machine: Interacting, not competing

Their sheer size makes seaports a great option for automation. What are the reasons for and the limits of this process?

At the rail terminal of HHLA Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA), rail gantry crane 04 reaches beyond all nine of the busy platforms. Its 500 tonnes of hefty technology moves into position over the half-empty train beneath. A steel box weighing several tonnes hangs under the rotating trolley and must be placed precisely onto a container wagon. The castings at the corners of the container have to lock into the four corner fittings of the railcar.

The rail gantry crane does this very well, says Jan Kämena. The CTA employee is sitting in the cabin of the crane supervising a test of rail handling automation at CTA. The Port of Hamburg terminal was already the most automated port in the world when it started operations in June 2002. It is still a flagship project, and the rail gantry crane initiative will take it one step further. Supported by the German Federal Programme for Innovative Port Technologies (Bundesprogramm Innovative Hafentechnologien – IHATEC), developers at CTA want to find a way for human and machine to interact in automated operations.

30 real-time scanners focus on safety

The facility has been equipped with 30 real-time scanners that can record 26 million points per second in order to recognise people and vehicles. The scanners make 3D scans of the relevant environment while a software constantly compares these images to how the space is meant to look. If it identifies an unknown object, it stops the crane.

In the future, remote control operators sitting in the CTA office buildings will be able to supervise and control multiple rail gantry cranes. The majority of standardised handling processes at the station will then be automated. iSAM AG, a globally in-demand of automation technology specialist and part of the HHLA Group since 2020, is also involved in the project.

“These kinds of operations are exactly what our strategic goal was when we decided to work with HHLA,” explains Bernd Mann, CEO of iSAM AG. iSAM’s focus up to now has been on the equipment of mines and on terminals for bulk goods. The Mülheim an der Ruhr-based company’s flagship project is Hansaport, the largest ore and coal port in Germany, located at the Port of Hamburg. The iSAM experts have shifted their focus to now include containers in addition to bulk goods.

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Seaports’ size make them ideal for automation

Their larger size makes seaports better for scaling than their smaller counterparts, such as inland terminals for rail and inland waterway ships, Mann says. Automation is only worth it for larger facilities, because the effort necessary to get there is high, he adds. “There are few technological limits for our solutions, but more than a few economical ones,” says the iSAM boss.

Ports are not lagging behind in the global megatrend of automation, as the example of CTA shows. However, other logistics fields have already made further progress with the trend. Intralogistics is an example of this, with its giant high-bay warehouses and standardised processes that are easier to automate. Autonomous drones are even taking care of inventory tasks overnight.

What is the push behind automation?

No one is as familiar with the push behind this vast level of automation as Bernd Mann. Even during his university studies, he was already looking at automation technology. He then started at iSAM in 1993 and has been the member of the Executive Board responsible for development and technology since 2002, taking over the Chairman position in 2020. In his experience, it is often a lack of qualified personnel that leads customers to automate processes.

Working conditions for employees can even be improved by automation. “Younger colleagues in particular find working in remote control attractive,” says the iSAM boss. “They would rather work in an air-conditioned office with a coffee machine nearby than climb all over a crane in all kinds of weather and spend their entire shift alone.”

Mann learned from his experience in Australia that remote operation centres open up completely new perspectives, for example when workers are needed for remote, unpopular areas. Mining operations can be largely managed from a distance, for instance. “They employ hundreds of people who now don’t have to commute. This is a huge advantage for their families and for the environment,” says Mann.

Technology is gentler and its use can be better planned

In economies with high wages, like Australia and the EU countries, positions in automation are more secure in the long term because they are more productive and therefore more competitive. Mann also gives another important reason for advancing automation: “The technology is gentler on the usually very expensive devices than a person would be. This means they last longer.” In addition, their performance can be called up continuously, and it is easier to plan and integrate them into complex terminal processes.

The iSAM boss does acknowledge that fewer employees will be needed in some industries following more automation. For port operations, however, he sees new opportunities for employment. “At the port, no one is longing to haul heavy bags around anymore. The less attractive positions like this will disappear, but there is still enough work in other areas like design, management, scheduling and maintenance.”

Computers are unable to decide between two bad solutions

The question remains: what are automation’s limits? Mann gives a reassuring response: “Computers can’t solve problems. People are more efficient in unusual situations. With their experience, they can provide transfer services, i.e. make decisions that lie outside programmable routines.”

Computers are not in a position to find creative ways around problems or to decide between two bad solutions, according to Mann’s analysis. In cases like these, people find compromises to complete the discharging of a ship on time, for example. Sometimes 50 containers have to stay behind or must be driven to the next port in a truck.

People remain essential, not just for overcoming crises and exceptional circumstances, but primarily for new creations and creative improvements, for planning and prioritisation. And the smarter inclusion of machines can help shape a sustainable future. At CTA at the Port of Hamburg, the next challenge is already on the horizon: the container gantry cranes will also be automated bit by bit.

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