Brief guide to port automation

A brief guide to container terminal automation

Supporters say automated ports are fast, safe and easy to scale. They’re good for the environment and the economy, and they create jobs. Detractors cite job and skill losses, high capital investment and maintenance costs, union battles and cybersecurity challenges. Both groups are correct. Part of the problem is the definition of port automation.

For many, automation is synonymous with unmanned, but that’s not necessarily the case. Automated systems can take over the heavy, repetitive tasks and free people up to carry out more complex or interesting tasks. Some jobs will disappear, to be replaced with supervisory jobs.

Aspects of terminal automation

Because shipping containers are standardised, container terminals are easier to automate than other cargo terminals. This is why almost all the fully-automated port facilities are container terminals.

In a conventional container terminal, trucks or trains deliver containers to the yard. Special vehicles take the containers to the stacks where cranes stack them in a predetermined order. When the ship arrives, stacking cranes move the containers off the stacks, vehicles transport them to the quay, and gantry cranes lift the containers onto the ship. It’s a finely tuned operation, and a delay in any part of the operation holds up the whole chain.

Ports can automate several areas of the chain:

  1. yard management;
  2. port gates;
  3. stacking cranes;
  4. horizontal transport; and
  5. quay cranes.

Yard management

Yard management includes berth, stowage, yard and labour planning. Even for a small terminal, stowage and yard planning can be incredibly complicated. Mistakes in stacking and distribution or confusion about worker shifts will lead to delays. Computers are much better than humans at that sort of planning, so ports have been automating yard management since the 90s, making yard management the most advanced sector of port automation.

Port gate automation

Everything entering or leaving the port has to go through the gates. Security, weighbridges, customs and immigration are critical, but the manual processes slow things down. Automating these processes smooths and speeds up the system.

Stacking cranes

As the name suggests, stacking cranes stack containers in the yard. The yard is a controlled, predictable environment, which makes it ideal for automation. Most automated stacking cranes (ASCs) use lidar-based systems to position containers within 50mm of their intended position. Their anti-collision system ensures that they stop moving if they detect something in their direction of travel.

Horizontal transport

When the ship is ready for loading, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or automated straddle carriers (ASCs) carry the containers from the stacks to the quay.

Warehouses and factories ashore have been using AGVs for years, so the technology is tried and tested. The challenge for ASCs and AGVs is the guidance system. In warehouses, they’re usually controlled by guide wires or magnetic tapes in the floor, GPS or lidar. The scale of container ports and the large stacks of steel containers block signals and make these systems impractical. Because of this, most ports choose transponder-based systems for AGV guidance.

Quay cranes

Quay cranes lift containers on and off ships at the quay. To do this, cranes need to allow for the ship moving in the water, the position of the container, and the interactions with crew and stevedores. This makes quay cranes the most complex point of port automation.

Twistlocks hold containers in position. Someone – either a stevedore or a crew member – has to unlock the twistlocks before the crane can lift the container. If it tries to lift the container while the person is still there, it can lead to serious injury or death. Automatic twistlocks are slowly filtering across the industry, but they’re not yet common.

Nowadays, even manually operated quay cranes benefit from aspects of automation, with advanced motor control systems to help with smooth lifting and anti-sway. This improves speed and precision, which leads to greater efficiency.

Pros and cons of port automation


When they’re working well, automated container terminals are faster, safer and more efficient than conventional ports. Automated terminals like Rotterdam operate 24/7 without worrying about human operators becoming tired and distracted. Truck drivers face frequent delays at conventional ports, so it’s no surprise that they’re in favour of automation as well. It’s not just about turnaround times. Optimised, automated cargo handling reduces emissions while increasing the number of ships the port can handle.

The Port of Auckland can’t expand outwards, so they’re expanding up instead. New automated straddle carriers will load and unload trucks and stack containers in the yard. They can handle higher stacks, increasing capacity by a third without increasing the land use. As well as saving on labour costs, Port of Auckland expects the automated straddle carriers to save fuel, need less maintenance and repair, require less lighting (and therefore electricity), be quieter, and provide greater safety by separating people and machines.


But it’s not all sweetness and light, especially for port workers. While automation can create jobs supervising and maintaining the equipment, they come at the cost of existing jobs. This is why labour unions usually object to automation. With planning, ports can help staff to upskill and retrain, retaining staff and maintaining a positive atmosphere.

In addition to potential job losses, automated systems need a high initial investment and ongoing maintenance costs, putting full automation out of reach of ports in less developed areas. Even in these areas, partial automation is still a viable option.

Cybersecurity is a growing concern for all computer-based systems. Nowhere is that more true than operational technology. If they gain control of straddle carriers or cranes, malicious actors could kill people. A cybersecurity breach is a serious threat to an automated port.

Barriers to port automation

According to McKinsey’s 2018 report on the future of automated ports, the major barriers to port automation are:

  • A shortage of specialised engineers;
  • Poor data quality and a lack of data standards
  • Siloed operations
  • Exception handling

Even starting with experienced engineers, it takes up to five years to train them to fill the specialised technical positions in an automated port. Port and terminal operators of automated ports have difficulty filling these positions.

A data silo is a block of information that’s only accessible to a part of an operation. Data silos and a lack of data standards are common problems in automation, regardless of the industry; port automation is no different. Automated systems rely on the ability to communicate with other parts of the system; and data silos work against this. Poor quality data, incompatible formats and fragmented systems impede automation.

Conventional ports separate each step of the cargo-handling process. Conversely, the integration of the whole process chain is a basic principle of automation. The siloed operations of conventional ports work against automation.

When ports automate manual processes without simplifying them first, the processes are likely to go wrong. Dealing with these exceptions is time-consuming and requires trained and experienced staff who are familiar with the equipment.

Case study

When it opened in May 2017, the Qingdao New Qianwan Container Terminal (QQCTN) was the first fully automated container terminal in Asia. At first, it handled on average 26.1 containers per crane per hour; by late 2018 that had increased to 33.1, 50% better than the worldwide average.

On the labour front, they only need nine port workers to discharge a ship, down from sixty in the past. Zhang Liangang, General Manager of QQCTN noted, “Labor costs have been reduced by 70 percent because of this automatic terminal, while efficiency increased by 30 percent, because we can work at night.” Because of this, they paid off the $468 million investment required to build the terminal quickly and became profitable within ten months.


The chief executive of the Harbor Trucking Association, Weston LaBar, notes a pleasant side-effect of automated terminals: “no one’s rude to them [the truck drivers]. The machines are more polite than the longshoremen.”

The financial, environmental and safety benefits of port automation are inarguable. However, the implications for some employees are unavoidable. Erwin Rademaker, a programme manager at the Port of Rotterdam, explains, “Autonomous isn’t the same as unmanned. But if objects are talking with each other and taking autonomous decisions, certain jobs will disappear.”

While that’s true, automated ports create jobs in maintaining and supervising the robots. Rather than seeing the shortage of skilled people for these roles as a barrier, ports can upskill their existing workforce as part of the transition.