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The prototype truck lane – receival of export containers from trucks by auto straddles will be fully automated

Auckland port automation on track for 2020 – By Dave MacIntyre

The massive automation project being undertaken at Ports of Auckland (POAL) is on track to go live in February 2020, becoming a ‘world first’ hybrid operation where the current manually-driven container straddles are retained and have to interface with new automated straddles.

The ‘go live’ timing has been selected to work in with a slower period for the container terminal, and the full benefits of automation will be delivered after the project is fully operational later in 2020.

The new automated straddles are 15.8 m tall and will be able to stack containers up to four high. Currently the terminal uses 13 m tall manual straddles, which stack containers up to three high. Therefore, this switch will immediately increase stacking capacity by a third.

A new reefer gantry area on the southeast corner of Fergusson Wharf will also stack four high and has already been commissioned prior to the automation project going live. Until then, it will be used to stack three high.

Shoreside modifications

Another benefit is that the automated straddles require fewer ‘roadways’ – clear pathways where the manual straddles move around the blocks of container stacks – which means the yard layout is being tweaked to achieve greater stacking density, again increasing capacity.

This freeing-up of space has also been assisted by the fitting of platforms onto the quay cranes, to hold the hatch covers from the ships while they are being worked. Previously, these large covers were laid on the ground, so storing them high on the rear of the cranes clears more ground space for container stacks.

In total, 27 auto straddles have been ordered, of which two remain in Germany while feedback on software improvements is gathered. All remain under the ownership of Kone until they are tested, proven fit for purpose and accepted by POAL. This includes several hours of endurance tests, where the straddles must complete repeated tasks without fail.

The engineering workshops weren’t big enough to accommodate the height of the new straddles so a special shed has had to be rigged up using stacks of containers as the walls, topped by a curved canopy roof.

From truck to auto straddle

Close to the test area is a prototype truck lane with a marked area, so a truck can be backed up to exactly where the auto straddle is expecting it to be. When in operation, truck drivers will reverse into the lane, leave their cab and enter their job details into the port system from a booth in front of the lane. 

Location system poles (which are also light poles) have been erected as part of the project

A set of gates lowers in front of the truck and a second set at the rear of the vehicle opens, to admit the auto straddle. Receival of export containers from trucks by auto straddles will be fully automated, while the final step of lowering import containers onto truck trailers will be completed by an operator using a remote control. Once the lift-off or lift-on is complete, the rear gates close and the front ones open, to let the truck depart.

Automation and extension of the truck grid requires the installation of positioning and control systems, and a new perimeter fence and gates to separate people from the automated equipment. All will go through full system testing before being commissioned.

New extra-rigid lighting poles have been installed, upon which the signal transmitters can be mounted. 

Will everything be automated?

Other works which have needed to dovetail with the automated system include updating the vehicle booking system (VBS) for truck arrivals on the grid, and improved optical character recognition (OCR) on the quay cranes for the scanning of container numbers.

A pedestrian tunnel is being dug to allow personnel to access other parts of the port without crossing the automated area of the terminal.

One thing that will not change is transfers between the yard and ship-to-shore cranes. The port believes productivity would be lost if that part of the operation was automated. Results from operations overseas suggest that the moves per hour attained by automated transfers are well below manual rates.

Also, the manual straddles at Fergusson lift two boxes whereas the auto straddles will only lift one at a time. So, a hybrid operation has been devised where the manual straddles can drop two boxes in an interface area, and the automated straddles can pick them up individually and complete the stacking operations and the vehicle transfers.

Benefits of automation

Among the immediate benefits from the automation will be surety of ‘labour’ availability – the auto straddles will constantly be ready for work and can easily adjust to changes in ship arrival times, compared to the existing situation where stevedoring labour has to be booked in to meet shipping schedules, which often change, and where sometimes there are labour shortages. At times when more labour is required at short notice, the port will have the luxury of simply deploying more automated straddles.

Automation will also help to make operations more sustainable by reducing emissions along with noise and light pollution, and will keep costs down.

All of these works must also fit in with the Fergusson Container Terminal extension project that has been underway since the early 2000s. A reclamation (consented in 1998) increased the yard area by 10 ha. It also includes a 50 m extension northward of the main Fergusson Terminal Wharf which was completed in 2015 and the creation of a new Fergusson North Wharf.

This new wharf extends 307 m east from the northwest tip of the current Fergusson Terminal Wharf, across the north face of the reclamation, giving the container terminal a much-needed deep-water third berth. 

Three new quay cranes ordered from Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industry Co (ZPMC) for the wharf have been installed. These will be able to carry up to four containers at once, so will be able to load and unload ships faster than existing cranes.

Human resources

Another element to the automation project is the human aspect – the workforce that will be affected by automation, particularly those whose roles could change or go. For that reason, the port company is undergoing a ‘futures’ initiative with its workforce to see how many wish to retrain for new positions within the port or outside, such as becoming truck drivers. Others will be offered the chance to learn a new trade at a polytechnic, with the support of the port.

Two containers have been set up with an exhibition, tracing the changes which have occurred in the port’s operations and in New Zealand life generally since the 1980s, and then asking the question ‘what could the future hold?’ Staff are being invited to facilitated sessions in the containers to consider how changes to the nature of work could affect them in the future and to look at what they can do to adapt. 

Dave MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport issues within New Zealand; he can be contacted at d.macintyre@xtra.co.nz

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