For hours, the 47.9-metre high unloading crane has been shovelling iron ore out of the holds of the bulk carrier Constantia. With each lift, 25 tonnes of the red granules rush through the shaft of the bridge onto a conveyor belt to the storage yard. It will take almost two days to unload approximately 126,000 tonnes of ore from the 292-metre long bulk carrier that has docked at Hamburg Hansaport.
This is all in a day’s work for Germany’s biggest seaport terminal for bulk cargo, but it’s something special, too: “The operation is automated to the greatest extent possible and is a global example for optimal processes in bulk cargo handling,” says Bernd Mann, Chairman of the Executive Board of iSAM AG.
The company from Mülheim/Ruhr is an international leader in the development of automated heavy machinery for bulk cargo handling and developed the automated material flow at the terminal. iSAM recently joined the HHLA Group, which is taking another step in the direction of future technologies.
But the inconspicuous outer layer is hiding something: at 15 million tonnes per year, Hansaport handles more than 10 percent of Hamburg’s total throughput. Automation has other aspects as well: “Automated handling of bulk goods requires more flexible algorithms than the largely standardised handling of containers,” emphasises iSAM CEO Mann.
iSAM AG is a specialist for difficult cases in automation. Long before “Industry 4.0” became a buzzword, four students from the Ruhr valley recognised the potential for digitalised and automated production processes. While they completed their studies, they founded a firm in 1983 for the development of control software, which grew through expansion and mergers over the years to include more than 70 employees and branches on three continents. “We’ve been able to hang on to the start-up mindset of the time,” explains Mann, who joined the company in 1993, the Executive Board in 2002 and became Chairman in 2021.
“iSAM” stands for “industrial software application manufacturing”. With the development of these industrial applications, the young entrepreneurs concentrated on the steel industry at first. There is scarcely a process from blast furnace to continuous casting to rolling that iSAM hasn’t developed control software for.
“After we had successfully automated steel production and processing, we looked to raw materials and the handling of ore and coal,” says Mann. The Mülheim-based company has long since mastered filigree processes as well. Among other things, iSAM software controls automated repair machines for components made of fibre composites, for example in aircraft.
On board the Constantia, unloading operations have been advancing. The terminal operated by HHLA and the steel group Salzgitter AG can handle up to 100,000 tonnes of bulk cargo every day. Looking from the unloading crane into the cargo hold of the freighter, the challenge for automation becomes clear: “Our equipment must be able to perform complex movements and keep an eye on the working environment,” Mann explains.
The ten-cubic-metre excavator shovel is lowered vertically through the Constantia’s loading hatch and then has to be moved sideways to the bulk material on the sides of the hold. The trick is that the trolley on the jib from which the gripper hangs moves forward with momentum, then brakes. At the same time, the grab bucket is lowered and, due to its inertia, continues its movement in a calculated arc to the target point in the ore load.
“A skilled crane operator accomplishes this with the help of their senses and experience,” Mann explains. “For automation, in addition to the control software, we need to use the appropriate sensors that provide the basis for the movement and control the execution.” Using exact GPS and real-time capable 3D scanners, the control system always knows the position of the gripper and the nature of its environment.
Information about the load flows into the program. Thanks to the captured data, the software even knows the gripper’s kinetic energy at all points along its trajectory and can stop it at any time – “Of course, the heavy equipment must not damage the ship.”
The operations are monitored from a control station on the upper floor of the Hansaport office building. Two monitors give the employee on duty detailed information about the four unloading cranes; two other screens show the values of the belt scales of the material flow and current weather data. These are important because Hansaport must avoid the formation of any dust. If necessary, sprinkler systems are switched on in the 35-hectare yard.
All other steps after unloading are also automated. From the gantry grab cranes, the bulk material is transported via conveyor belts to what are known as stacker reclaimers. These combined units resemble bucket-wheel excavators in surface mining and can heap the bulk material into piles and also pick it up again and transport it via conveyor belts to the rail loading station.
They are also equipped with a variety of sensors, including sonar, radar and lidar, which provide the control programme with all the necessary information in real time. At the railway station, the bulk material is automatically loaded into the rail carriages for its onward journey to the customer. The Hansaport shunters also drive autonomously. An average of 2,000 tonnes of bulk goods per hour are loaded onto 15 freight trains and five inland waterway ships every day. 50,000 tonnes of bulk goods leave the terminal per day.
In Hamburg, 18 kinds of ore and 12 different types of coal are handled. “This bulk material is differentiated into lump ore, fine ore, pellets, and thermal coal for power and heat generation. There is also coal and coking coal for steel production,” Hansaport managing director Ben Thurnwald explains. There are also up to three kinds of construction material. “Each bulk material has a different flow and rolling behaviour, and the automation must be adapted accordingly,” says iSAM expert Mann.
Because iSAM AG specialises in solving such complex tasks, the majority stake in iSAM AG is part of HHLA’s strategy for the future. “In port handling and logistics in general, the digitalisation and automation of processes is rapidly growing in importance,” says Chairwoman of the Executive Board Angela Titzrath. “As a leading European port and logistics company, we aim to build up a high level of in-house expertise in these areas as well.” For iSAM AG, this has a welcome side effect: “HHLA’s investment will secure the founders’ life-long work and iSAM AG in the long term,” says Mann.
Thanks to its sophisticated technical equipment, Hansaport has now become a popular tourist destination. The internationally unique operation is an impressive practical example for bulk materials specialists from all over the world of automation processes in ore mines, coal mines and quarries in Australia, North America and Asia.
For Hamburgers, on the other hand, a quick glance at the Hansaport, which they see while driving over the Köhlbrand bridge, reveals nothing special. In everyday port life, the work on the Constantia is slowly coming to an end, while next door the Nadine V has already moored. Two unloading cranes are ready to get to work. Over the next two days, they will shovel the cargo of the 235-metre long bulk carrier ashore with each passing minute. The automated heavy machinery at the bulk terminal just can’t catch a break.
Text und pictures: Wolfgang Heumer