Do we need automated terminals?

India needs fully automated container terminals to meet the growing exim cargo requirements to speed up movement at terminal and at the gate. This article explains what kind of model we should adopt.

Currently India has 20+ operational container terminals and is annually handling about 12 million teus. At present none of these terminals is fully automated. Also, amongst the upcoming 3 new container terminals 2 are on conventional design and the 3rd which is first of its kind transshipment container terminal at Vizhinjam is being conceptualized to be a fully automated Terminal. The strategic decision to opt for a “fully automated container terminal is not only a visionary business call but also takes into consideration key business facets viz. technical requirement, volumes to be handled etc.

The fully automated container terminal is established considering:

  • 24 hrs/day operation philosophy with set climatic condition parameters
  • High reliability of operations
  • Either to reduce or eliminate human interface for the terminal operation including operations of the container handling equipment.
  • To attain the highest level of safety of the operation and
  • Enhance competitiveness by using the information technology The container terminal operations (conventional/automated) are divided in three zones:
  • Sea side (quay side) operation.
  • Storage-yard operation.
  • Land side operation (gate operation)

Sea side operations

The sea side operation shall be carried out by rail mounted quay cranes or ship to shore (STS) crane. The terminals install the STS cranes based on the ship sizes. The size of the crane has an impact on the wharf design and terminal lay out as well. There is a thumb rule that crane outreach is twice the length of the crane rail gauge for better stability (however this is not mandatory). That means 30 m rail gauge can have 60 m outreach; 35 m rail gauge can have 70 m  outreach. The back reach of the crane shall be decided by the operation requirement.

If operation is carried out between the legs of the crane, back reach operation is only for handling hatch covers. That means back reach of 15m to 20 m is sufficient. Apron size is thus minimized. All conventional container terminals are operated between the legs. As operation is carried out with in the legs, crane hoist trolley also moves with in the legs. The pinning operation is also under the nominated line side between the legs.

The automated container terminal calls for back reach operation. This is because, automated container terminal has horizontal transport system. The automated vehicle requires flawless instrumentation and communication system. Under the crane umbrella (between leg operations), the communication system is not flawless and chances are more to break or delay the communications. The trolley path is also increased, means more cycle time, less productivity.

Therefore, STS cranes for automated Container Terminals are modified for productivity and safety aspect. The STS crane has bigger back reach and rail gauge is about 30 m. The STS crane is equipped with double trolley system and pinning station on the crane. The main trolley operates either with operator on-board or remotely. The main trolley lifts the container from the ship and delivers on the pinning platform. The total travel cycle is automated only release or start has human interface. The 2nd trolley lifts the container from pinning station and delivers to horizontal transport vehicle. This operation is fully automated. Same way it takes delivery from Vehicle and delivers on pinning station for export container. This automated function is carried out by TOS (Terminal Operating System) carefully integrated with crane operating system. The updated TOS shall give command to crane PLC for the execution of said operation. The Automated operation calls for the other system like OCR (Optical Character reader) system, Laser sensors and camera system mandatory requirement on the crane.

These extra features of STS crane increase its cost by at least $2 to 2.5 million (the base crane cost suitable for 23 across container ship). The STS crane performance shall not change much compared to conventional terminal STS crane. However the terminal efficiency may be increased due to correct data entry as it takes automatically and checks/verifies online real time basis.

Is it worth spending?

 The capital expenditure is nearly increasing by 30 per cent and there shall be no visual benefit of sea side throughput performance of the STS cranes. The operative cost will also remain same as benefit of reduced manpower is offset by increase of qualified maintenance crew as it becomes more complex.

The conventional operation has drawback of terminal efficiency. Manual entry of container operation data can be verified online real-time by installing OCR on the crane. The cost of OCR may be in the range of $75,000 to $100,000 per crane. The capital investment increment is about 1.5% but it pays back as operational efficiency is at par with automated terminal.

Therefore my opinion is for STS crane operation between the crane legs and equipped with OCR for automatic registration and verification of container for terminal size up to 2 million teu.

Horizontal transport system:

The conventional container terminal uses the tractor chassis for the container movement to and fro from yard. The automated container terminal calls for automated Guided vehicle (AGV) or Lift-AGV (LAGV); Auto Shuttle Carrier (SC), or automated truck-carrier (under invention). All these type of the vehicles are equipped with high-end technology and terminal need to have very good infrastructure for communications and navigational system. The success of these is only possible if planning and scheduling is carried out efficiently with TOS system. Therefore a hand on knowledge and experience of TOS system is prerequisite.

The capital cost of AGV/LAGV in tune of $0.7 million (the auto shuttle cost is also about $0.75 to 0.80) whereas the chassis with tractor head costing not more than $80,000. The price difference is very high.

Operation comparison of automated & conventional horizontal transportation system

The automatic vehicle as name suggested operated without any operator. The onboard navigational system navigates the vehicle to target and target assigned by TOS. Being operated automatically with set norms and conditions; there is absolutely no chance of any accident. The Terminal has to be operated as a whole with laid down SOP (Standard Operative Philosophy).

If we assume that the container terminal capacity is about 2 million teus having 9 STS cranes. About 6 to 7 such automatic vehicles are required per STS depending upon the yard layout and distance to be travelled for each vehicle. That means terminal requires about 58 such vehicles. If terminal capacity increases in the future; number of the equipment both cranes and automatic vehicles are proportionally increased. But marginally cost increase on navigational system. The fuel cost is also lower than the conventional chassis system as chassis is operated on diesel oil system.

The conventional Terminal is using tractor chassis for the horizontal transportation. As a thumb rule each STS crane requires about 7 chassis for matching output. That means for 9 STS cranes requires 63 chassis. As chassis is operated by operator, operating in 3shifts requires 35 per cent more operators to cater weekly offs and compensate the leaves. That means 255 to 260 operators are required. Any increment in capacity, this figure is also revised. Though Terminal is enforcing all safety measures; there are chances of the accident to occur. The probability of occurring accident is depending upon the psychological state of the operator mind which is hard to predict and taking corrective measures. The vehicle system is also not eco-friendly and Terminal has to work on reducing the carbon foot prints. The reliability of the chassis system is based on the operator functions and it gets changed with turnover of operators. Many Terminals are offering incentive schemes to operators for achieve set reliability.

The AGV/LAGV or auto SC calls for STS back reach operations and yard operation as end serving. These are the main impact on the terminal lay out and operation philosophy. The conventional Chassis operation calls for between leg operations and suitable also for back reach operation. However the drawback is of Labor intensive.

What shall be the forward path?

If Terminal is designed for maximum 2 million teus handling per annum, I prefer to select chassis system with certain modifications. The GNSS systems (GPS based system) is incorporate with each chassis so that one can monitor effectively each and every chassis. So tailor made navigational monitoring system, shall control the over speeding and under speed; thus accidents and delays. Also it helps to find out gray vehicles in the operations. One has to explore the feasibility of the gas based engine fuel system to replace the diesel fuel.

The selection of horizontal transportation system is playing a major role for finalizing the terminal yard layout. At later stage it becomes too costly or may be unviable to change the layout of the yard (operational difficulties). Therefor if we are planning 2-5 million teus Terminal, one should go for fully automated Terminal. This is mainly due to safety and reliability of operation with set productivity norms. One cannot keep reliability of performance with conventional operation with large labor force and manually data entry. For less than or up to 2 million teus above mentioned modified chassis should be used as horizontal transport system.

If terminal having growth plan in near future above 2 million teus, then one should consider the Auto Shuttle Carrier for future consideration. This shall not much alter the yard layout. After sacrificing some ground slots; the block can be converted into end serving system if required. The STS operation remains between the legs with customized instrumentation.

What about yard equipment?

 Automated yard prefers ASC (Automated Stack Crane). The ASCs PLC gets the task from TOS and ASC also acknowledges the completion of task to TOS. The advantage of ASC is that we can have dense stack yard (say 10 to 12 rows of containers and 1 over 5). Worldwide ASC are operated as “end serving” lay out. Due to end serving, it prefers to have AGV/LAGV or shuttle carrier as horizontal transporter.

The other option is CRMGC (Cantilever type Rail Mounted Gantry Crane). This CRMGC is not designed for end serving. The vehicle lane is planned in yard layout and CRMGC shall pick/drop the container from/to the vehicle. The CRMGC is operated automatically but has human interface operation with pick up/ drop operation at vehicle interface. This operation shall be carried out remotely. One operator can control 3 to 4 CRMGC at a time. This option facilitates the operation with horizontal transport system as truck chassis or shuttle carrier.

The third option is with RTGC. Most of the conventional container terminal is operated with RTGC. The RTGC is now available up to 7 rows + truck lane. The only drawback is the gantry speed cannot match with CRMGC and ASC. Earlier RTGC was powered by onboard diesel engine but now days RTGC is available with lots of option for Yard power system (such as Low or High BUS BAR system, cable reel system, energy chain system etc). There are also options available for auto steering system. As there is dedicated truck lane for RTGC, Automatic operation is just like same as CRMGC. The only difference is communication system. The CRMGC is generally designed with fiber optic cable for control and communication purposes whereas RTGC is designed with high speed wireless system.

The ASC is costing about $2.6 million/ unit; The CRMGC costs about $2.9 million/unit whereas E-RTGC cost $1.5 million/unit. The civil cost of ASC and CRMGC is also more due to rail system. Therefore lower capital cost is with E-RTGC system.

The operative cost, considering ERTGC & chassis operation is about US $ 9/box. Whereas CRMGC & Chassis operation put together may be considered as $9.5/box. The ASC + AGV combination operating cost considered as $8/box.

The Terminal yard layout planning shall confirm the total numbers of the equipment requirement. The ERTGC layout requires more land and more number of units than ASC and CRMGC. One such analysis is showing that about 25 per cent more units are required than that of ASC and C-RMGC for same Terminal capacity. Therefore virtual E-RTGC costing is $1.875 million/unit while comparing cost of ASC and C-RMGC.

To make the yard automated with E-RTGC option using Tractor chassis system as suggested above. The ERTGC shall be automatically operated and only remote operation is with interface of the tractor chassis. By this we can optimized about 65 per cent of the E-RTGC operators. Operational Reliability and operational efficiency is also increased as manually data entry is eliminated. The capital cost of E-RTGC may be increased to $1.9 million/unit and virtually cost $2.35 million/unit.

Gate operations: Automated gate operation ensures high security and access control along with high speed processing of container. There are established solution providers available in the market and system reliability as good as 98 per cent. Most of the OCR portals can satisfactory work up to maximum speed of chassis as 10 m/s which is equivalent to 36 km/hr. Most of the Terminal has chassis speed restriction 30 to 40 km/hr. inside the gate. The Gate automation increases the process efficiency with fewer system operators. Terminal has to invest for gate automation system.


India needs a customized automated container terminal system. Sea side requires up-gradation of conventional operation. Horizontal transportation based on the terminal size shall use tractor chassis with option to have LNG/CNG fuel and incorporated with GNSS system. Terminal size up to 2 million teus per annum; RTGC with yard power system, automatic yard is to be right choice. The gate system must be automatic.