Tom Bebbington from consultancy Container Logic makes the case for flying boxes in and out of ports rather than using cranes.
Container vessels have been getting progressively larger, to the point of 23,000 teu. Whilst this may generate economies of scale for the carriers (although this is debatable), it puts a huge strain on terminals and the infrastructure that is needed to work these vessels.
Until now, as vessels have grown in size, the answer has been to build quay cranes that are ever larger, with further outreach capabilities, to cope with the increase in vessel size.
Although the quay (or berth) is a terminal’s most valuable piece of ‘equipment’, the most expensive pieces of equipment are the gantry cranes themselves. Not only have they gotten more expensive to build and maintain, but they are a huge financial risk from a terminal operator’s point of view.
If a terminal does not invest in ever larger cranes, there is the risk that they will not be able to attract the major carriers to call there. On the other hand, if they invest in these newer cranes and carriers choose to use other terminals, then this can be a financial disaster. Given the size and complexity of these machines, it’s not an easy task to move them to another terminal, assuming you own more than one terminal.
From a productivity perspective, larger vessels and cranes have not led to an increase in terminal productivity. But what if our thinking is now based too much on the past. Bigger vessels mean bigger cranes? What if there was a way to eliminate the need for quay cranes entirely?
For a long time, drones were primarily a tool for entertainment. As improvements have been made they are now being used for everything from aerial filming, search and rescue operations, parcel delivery and even human organ deliveries between hospitals. Drone technology has been steadily advancing over the last few years and will continue to do so.
Let’s suppose, for one moment, that instead of having fixed gantry cranes with a spreader to lift the containers on and off the vessel, the same task could be achieved using drones. I know that right now, this may seem a fanciful idea, but bear with me.
Clearly, drone technology in terms of the amount of weight that can be carried and battery technology, in terms of size and weight have to be vastly improved before anything like this can even be considered but there are many companies around the world that are working on these problems.
So, if you could have individual drones that are capable of lifting fully loaded containers, then you would be able to eliminate the need to invest in ever larger gantry cranes. You would also eliminate the need for trucks or straddle carriers and, potentially, RTG’s in the yard.
Vessel size would no longer make a difference because the drones could load and discharge a vessel from both the onshore and offshore sides simultaneously. There would no longer be time lost because of gantry cranes waiting for the next truck to arrive under the quay and, since the whole operation would be automated, much time would be saved in terms of lining up containers with crane and RTG spreaders. Essentially you would be able to move a box from the yard to the vessel in a single move, as opposed to the two to three moves (minimum) that are currently happening.
From a terminal operator’s perspective, if the volumes in one terminal start to fall then it is a simple task to load the drones onto a standard container vessel and then move them to another terminal, at minimal cost. That would be a massive reduction in risk for any operator of multiple terminals.
There have been semi-automated terminals around for many years, but these are based mainly on automating existing technologies, rather than developing new ones. This idea would take automation to the next level.
Whilst this would inevitably lead to a reduction in labour at terminals, which is a good thing for the operators, not so much for the labour, it would also lead to an increase in safety since there would be far fewer people on the terminal.
The risk of human error would be vastly reduced and, in the event of an accident, there is a much lower risk of fatalities or injuries.
From another safety perspective, one only has to look at the recent incident in Dubai with the vessel CMA CGM Centaurus that collided with two cranes whilst berthing. The video is well worth a watch. The full accident report was recently released and is worth a read.
So, is it time to stop thinking about building ever larger, heavier cranes and start thinking outside of the box?