Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Cargo Handling is a Hot Topic for Ports

By Michael A. Moore

As newly built fleets of megaships get ready to set sail, Pacific Coast port operators are scrambling to dramatically increase their productivity and decrease unloading and port turnaround times to accommodate the quantum increases in the number of containers a single ship can bring into their facilities.

Throughput is the name of the game and technology provides the tools to win. However, not all tech is high tech – and dramatic improvements in productivity can result from simple changes to existing equipment.

The humble head block is an example of a conventional technology where an improvement not only provides a dramatic increase in productivity, but impacts the need to upgrade post-quay handling systems and technology to keep the containers moving.

“The latest thing in spreader tech is the Stinis split headblock for double-twin operation,” said Frank Hegan, president of Crane Tech Solutions. “Stinis came up with the idea of being able to pick up two containers fifteen years ago. This is the next step in that evolution – the split headblock can pick up four 20-foot containers or two 40 or 45 footers at once. The new headblock can nearly double the number of containers that can be handled in a given time. It’s all about how to get more productivity out of current assets.”

The faster the containers can be handled the more the terminal must ensure the cranes and docks are able to handle the additional capacity to prevent a back up on the quay.

“You have to think holistically,” said Hagen. “The terminal must review how they move containers to and from the water front and to and from the stacks. The next step is to analyze the steps the terminal uses in the stacks and how its Terminal Operating System (TOS) will perform monitoring the containers on terminal.

“The next phase is to review the movement of containers from the gates to/from the stacks,” he said. “For instance, does the terminal have a means to control the number of containers in the stack to prevent the possible occurrence of not having enough space to store the necessary containers. The gates must also be designed to handle the increased container traffic. The primary focus in the overall analysis must be to minimize and eliminate potential bottlenecks on the terminal.”

The technology that helps the port keep the containers moving is becoming increasingly high tech and data-centric. Crane operators running remotely controlled STS cranes with joysticks have moved from the cramped crane cab in the sky to an ergonomic office environment. Cameras on board the cranes allow the operators to monitor the crane operation with views better that the ones they had from the crane cabin. Without the operator onboard, the crane can run faster, resulting in shorter ramp and cycle times.

Containers are precisely tracked and located by means of position information systems that use a combination of GPS, gyros and motion sensors on the cargo handling equipment, including rubber tired gantry (RTG) cranes equipped with wi-fi that constantly communicate their every move, twist and turn to the terminal operation system (TOS) that is programmed with a 3-D matrix of the terminal.

Each cell of the matrix has a set of global position coordinates. When a crane operator puts a container into that cell, crane park position, position of the spreader, and the height are read by sensors and communicated wirelessly into the RTGs system and linked to the terminal operation system. On the release of the twist lock, all this gives the container a precise location on the yard. When the crane comes to pick up the container, the system automatically recognizes the location. After picking it up, the system registers the dispatch.

The size of container ships continues to increase exponentially, from Panamax ships with capacity up to 4,000 TEUs, to today’s Malaccamax giants of 18,000 TEU’s, outrunning the efforts of ports to keep up, much less get ahead of the mega-sizing of container ships.

Improvements in technology have moved beyond the GPS, sensors and wi-fi – the cargo handling equipment of the near future will incorporate three-dimensional lasers and even more data stream analysis and artificial intelligence. Beyond that are automated ports utilizing autonomous cranes, stackers, gantries and loaders – machines that work 24/7/365, only taking breaks for maintenance that is mandated by halfway around the world controllers that continuously monitor every aspect of the machines.

Autonomous trucks, drills and trains are already in use in copper and iron mines but it may be a while before they make their presence known in US ports in any significant way.

“There will be autonomous machines in the ports in the not too distant future,” said Alan Peterson, who heads up global sales for TMEIC Corporation, a joint venture of Toyota and Mitsubishi Electric Systems. TMEIC provides motor, drive and automation systems as well as develops advanced technology for the manufacturers of the intelligent cranes, gantries, stackers and other port cargo handling equipment.

“No one is ready to build autonomous key cranes yet,” he said. “The capability is there, but you can’t control the human factor. There are too many people in the work zone.

“People want remote controlled key cranes, where you get the driver out of the crane. ABB did it in 2007 in Panama – they were able to move 27 boxes an hour. Speed is the key. The goal is 36 to 40 boxes an hour – no one is doing that yet.”

The obstacle to higher speeds is the ability to control sway, which is still an elusive goal for remote controlled cranes.

“The driver in the cab has the physical feel and feedback to control the sway,” said Peterson. “TMEIC does not feel it will be a big problem, we have developed a prototype system and will soon be testing it on a working crane. The pieces are all there – what TMEIC is doing is putting them together to make the Beta Crane work.”

TMEIC has also developed a system for eliminating stack topples. “For yard cranes, 82 percent of the cost of insurance claims is caused by stack collisions” says Laurence Jones, Director of Global Risk for specialty maritime and transport industry insurer TT Club. The problem is simply a spreader or a container under the spreader colliding with the stack. The resulting damage and/or injuries caused by such accidents amounted to “339 claims costing $42 million over the last 7 years.”

TMEIC’s Maxview Smart Move™ system uses LIDAR, or laser imaging detection and ranging technology that measures properties of reflected infrared laser light to dynamically determine position of containers and spreader (loaded or unloaded). The system utilizes an industrial-grade laser scanner and sophisticated Maxview® system software modules to anticipate the movements of the spreader in flight as compared to the stack profile so as to prevent contact between the two.

The system is designed to be active in the background at all times but without intervention until collision avoidance requires it. One can liken this to the reverse motion sensors available on many modern automobiles: operation is only restricted when a collision is imminent.

Automated rail car landings are another area where TMEIC is pushing the envelope.

“Our customers want twin 20 automatic pick and landing,” said Peterson. “The goal is to accurately map the first landing position on the railcar using the 3D laser as a topographical mapping tool. We take a picture with the scanning laser to establish the four points for the landing.”

There may not be an abundance of autonomous machines operating in port terminals, but there are automated terminals. Automated container terminals are defined as those that use container-handling equipment that require no human interaction, according to a CH2M Hill report. Automated terminals automate at least one component of the terminal system.

There are more than a dozen semi or fully automated terminals in use throughout the world at this time. As of 2012, there is one automated terminal in the US located in Portsmouth, Virginia and two automated terminals planned in the Port of Los Angeles.

The Port of Los Angeles (POLA) published a draft study of terminal automation in March that stated, “most automated terminals that are under development worldwide are focused on Automated Stacking Cranes (ASCs) designs.” ASCs are rail mounted gantry cranes (RMGs) that are generally aligned perpendicular to the berth and interface with the terminal at the ends of the stacks.

The report says the ASCs both lift and carry loaded containers along the row to their destination within the row. Each ASC row typically has two ASCs running on the same set of rails: one for stevedoring work, and one for landside (gate and rail) work. ASC terminals are the current world standard for automated container terminals.

“ASCs do most of their duty cycle with no human interaction and can be driven remotely as needed,” the report says.

In ASC facilities, a stacking height of 1-over-5 has become the industry standard. The taller stacks may be possible, but pose more of a challenge for precisely level stacking areas, and also result in delay in retrieving local imports from tall stacks. The current range of ASC stack length varies from 36-59 total ground slots (TGS) (770 to 1260 feet). While these are not necessarily hard limits, stacks that are too short make poor use of expensive ASCs, and stacks that are too long may not allow for sufficient crane capacity to place or remove containers to make full use of them.

Finally, the report notes that ASC based terminals also have the advantage of allowing street trucks to turn off engines while waiting for service after backing into an ASC buffer; this results in significantly reduced trucks emissions.

CH2M Hill sees ports of the future employing intelligent containers, fully automated STS cranes, Mag-Lev replacing AGV and the TOS using quantum computing.