Automation at the Port of Long Beach

Long Beach Container Terminal’s automated guided vehicles move containers to a Middle Terminal yard, where automated stacking cranes sort and stack them.
Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach

Automated cranes and vehicles are loading and unloading mega-ships at one of the world’s most technologically advanced marine terminals.

PHASE ONE OF THE nine-year, $1.3 billion redevelopment and expansion of the Middle Harbor shipping terminal at the Port of Long Beach officially opened for business in April 2016. When the next phase is complete in 2019, two aging shipping terminals will have been transformed into one of the greenest, most technologically advanced terminals in the world. Almost entirely automated, Middle Harbor will be an extremely efficient operation capable of handling up to 3.3 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) every year, compared to 1.3 million today.

Rapid growth in the size of shipping vessels over the past decade is one of the driving factors behind the redevelopment of Middle Harbor. Walter Kemmsies, Ph.D., managing director, economist and chief strategist for the U.S. ports, airports and global infrastructure group at JLL, explains: “As world trade grew, ocean lines built bigger and bigger ships because they felt confident they could fill them. Ten years ago, there were no ships floating around bigger than 10,000 TEUs. The largest one floating around right now is 20,000 TEUs, but there is a 22,000-TEU [ship] being designed and built.” With phase one complete, Middle Harbor can now accommodate 18,000-TEU vessels. It will be able to service 24,000-TEU vessels when phase two is delivered.

To illustrate the strain these ever-larger ships put on port operators, Kemmsies describes the incredible effort that goes into unloading and reloading a mega-ship. He explains that if an 18,000-TEU ship is operating with 90 percent of its slots utilized, it has 16,200 TEUs on board. At the standard rate of 1.8 TEUs per lift, it would take 17,000 container lifts to unload and reload the ship, assuming 5 percent of the cargo remains onboard (as is common in Long Beach). Since approximately 28 percent of imports that come into the Port of Long Beach are transferred to trains, an 18,000-TEU ship would require 5,000 lifts from the terminal to and from trains, and another 13,000 onto and off of trucks. All of this activity needs to be accomplished in less than five days. Kemmsies notes, “This is a scale of activity human beings alone have a great deal of difficulty doing. At this scale and speed, you are going to need technology and machinery.”

To service these mega-ships safely, efficiently and with minimal environmental impact, Middle Harbor is relying heavily on a process that seamlessly integrates automated equipment. Noel Hacegaba, D.P.A., chief commercial officer and managing director of commercial operations at the Port of Long Beach, describes the process: “Advanced ship-to-shore cranes take the containers from the ship. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which are completely unmanned, then move the containers from the point of discharge into the yard. The AGVs take the containers to a pile and then the automated stacking cranes (ASCs) sort them out.” ASCs are able to work nonstop, 24/7, constantly preparing the stacks of shipping containers for the next leg of their journey.

Hacegaba points out, “It’s not just the introduction of advanced technology or advanced equipment” that is important. “It is also the way it’s being deployed.” For example, in conjunction with the opening of phase one, Middle Harbor introduced an appointment system for trucks coming to the port. The enhanced Middle Harbor yard and gate processes allow trucks to complete dual transactions — dropping off and picking up containers in one location — because each row of stacked containers may now contain a mix of exports, imports and empties. Hacegaba explains, “this leads to significantly reduced transaction times for the trucker and increased safety within the yard.”

In addition to increasing productivity at Middle Harbor, automation is also reducing the terminal’s environmental impact. According to Hacegaba, “Middle Harbor is poised to become the first zero-emission operation in North America.” To achieve this status, most of the new equipment at the terminal — including the huge ship-to-shore cranes, AGVs and ASCs — is electric. Reducing truck traffic through the new appointment system and the more organized stacking system has further diminished emissions at the port. Once on-dock rail is expanded during phase two of the redevelopment, truck emissions will be even further reduced.

The investment made by the Port of Long Beach and terminal operator Long Beach Container Terminal Inc. in new infrastructure and automation at Middle Harbor will help the port maintain its status as the second-busiest port in the U.S. while positioning it for future growth. As Kemmsies notes, “Automation is driven by the need for speed, safety and reliability.” Automation advances at Middle Harbor enable LBCT Inc. to move cargo as efficiently and safely as possible, resulting in faster, more reliable service for all segments of the supply chain at the port.

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