Monthly Archives: June 2014

What is a Container Terminal Automation System?

container termianl automation system


A container terminal is where the mode of container transport shifts between maritime and inland transportation. A terminal has containers carrying cargo as well as cranes and trucks, and uses them to move containers from a ship to the yard or vice versa, or from the yard to outside the terminal.


A manual container terminal has all its operations carried out with manually operated equipment. Terminal operation consists in Terminal operation System (TOS) drawing up a plan on how to unload containers to the yard or load them onto a ship arriving to the terminal, and this plan also details which vehicles and cranes are going to handle which specific containers. Equipment operators are going to perform their jobs according to the plan. 


As container ships grew larger, terminals faced increasing demands for handling a larger number of containers in a short period of time. Since more containers had to be handled over a shorter time span, terminals were increasingly required to be equipped with automation equipment.


At a fully automated terminal, when a container ship is berthed at the port, TOS plans and gives a job order, which is going to be carried out with ship-to-shore cranes, automated guided vehicles, and an automated stacking crane. Realizing such automation requires automated equipment, a monitoring system that supervises all equipment inside the terminal and a control system. 


Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA) in Hamburg, Germany and Europe Container Terminals (ECT) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands are two prime examples of a fully automated container terminal. However, all existing manual terminals cannot adopt automation equipment and system in order to boost productivity and cut down on labor cost. Then, what is an automation system in view of a manual terminal? 


It should mean a monitoring system that can watch all equipment and containers in a terminal. From the perspective of TOS, if we can figure out the locations of all terminal equipment and the operation that each piece of equipment is currently involved in, it should make it possible to re-plan by calculating optimized operations based on terminal conditions at specific points of time and thus, increase equipment efficiency and productivity. 


In order for cranes and container trucks to accurately perform job orders from TOS, equipment operators must work like automated equipment. Name of the game for this is Smart VMT that receives job orders for an operator. A Smart VMT, which must be designed so as to ensure intuitive understanding and fast recognition by operators who speak various languages, should have sensors check on equipment to inform the system of its status and perform the role of a communicator with the central system for a quick response in case of an accident/emergency. 


From the operator’s perspective, Smart VMT must be able to give job orders to equipment operators and facilitate problem solving through a virtual terminal that lets a user figure out at a glance the status of terminal equipment and condition of stacked containers. 


National Container Terminal in Saudi Arabia is a fine example of a manual terminal being automated. Productivity boost and cost reduction are the almost inevitable fate awaiting all terminals, and no one would deny the obvious trend toward fully automated container terminals. 


The first step is to automate manual terminals. And it is not about replacing all equipment with automated equipment. Rather, it consists in adopting a system that monitors all equipment, performs terminal operations based on the information, and makes operators of crane and terminal trucks effectively carry out job orders from the central system.


Posted by
In-Chon Park, a Business Analyst who has investigated container terminal market for several years and conducted TOS projects recently.


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