A port is a world of its own, often larger than countries like Liechtenstein, with highly digitalised work processes and heavy-duty special vehicles, for which Continental develops tyres. In an interview with VisionZeroWorld, Professor Jan Ninnemann, one of the world’s leading port experts, explains the main challenges in the microcosm of a port. What effects are digitalisation and Donald Trump’s foreign policy, for example, having on worldwide goods turnover? And how is automated machinery helping to improve safety and efficiency?
Professor Ninnemann, you research ports and advise companies on many matters relating to maritime logistics. How many ports have you visited worldwide?
That’s a good question. It’s quite a few, but I’m not a port spotter who keeps a list of all the ports I’ve been to. I can also feel at home in cities that don’t have a port (he laughs). But naturally I’ll take advantage of any opportunity to visit a new port. I think I’m already familiar with most of the world’s major ports. I’m currently involved in a consultancy project in the United Arab Emirates. And I take my students on an international port trip every year; last year we went to Taiwan, for example.
What do you look out for when you visit a new port?
First of all I look at a map to see the basic structure of a port. How is it accessed by water and land? Where are the terminals located in relation to each other and how are they connected to each other? I focus on container traffic. What I’m interested in is how a terminal is organised. What equipment is used to handle goods? How is container storage organised? There are lots of differences that a layperson might not see. Containers might be stored lengthwise and not sideways, for example, which then has an impact on the rest of the logistics chain.
A modern port is a perfectly organised microcosm. Every visitor is in principle a disturbing factor – aren’t you afraid on your trips that you’ll collide with an autonomous transport vehicle?
The safety precautions are very high. You can’t even enter the highly automated areas where autonomous vehicles are used; you can only look at them from a distance. As soon as a human even so much as sets foot in there, the whole facility immediately comes to a standstill. But the other areas are fascinating as well. In Hamburg, my home port, for example, giant van carriers are used to transfer containers in the big Burchard Quay terminal – in other words to transport them from the container bridge to the yard and from the yard to a truck. The driver is basically sitting on the equivalent of the top floor of a four- or five-story building and transporting one container after another. He really can’t see everything that’s going on down there at his feet. The safety requirements are therefore very high. You can’t even run out in front of a vehicle; they’ve got every corner monitored with cameras and other sensors.
Isn’t one of the biggest challenges getting humans and machines to work alongside each other in such a way that no-one is harmed?
That’s the main challenge. But relatively few accidents happen because the safety precautions are very high. You can see how the workplace of the typical dock worker is changing. A lot of cranes are remote-controlled these days. There’s no longer a crane driver sitting on the crane; the crane is controlled from the office with a joystick. That leads to further improvements in safety and efficiency. This kind of port crane isn’t in constant use. A worker in the office can switch between the various cranes that are currently being used. That allows much more efficient use to be made of human resources, partly because workers don’t have to climb up and down every time they want to go to the toilet, for example.
What role do humans actually play in a port today? In Singapore, the first autonomous trucks are already transporting containers in driverless platooning convoys.
Ports are actually acting as pioneers for these types of developments. Classic general cargo vessels were the norm twenty years ago, like the Cap San Diego in Hamburg, which is now a museum ship for tourists. It would lie in the port for five days while workers unloaded and loaded it manually, heaving sacks onto pallets. That’s inconceivable in a modern port. Container handling has made a lot of classic jobs at ports superfluous, that’s true. But the Port of Hamburg still employs around 150,000 staff, making it an important part of the city’s economy. Loading needs to be commissioned and consolidated; there are still a lot of tasks being carried out manually. In that respect, I wouldn’t say that port workers are a dying species. However, the degree of automation has naturally led to huge changes in the working environment.
In Hamburg, the port operator HHLA recently presented a transport concept together with the Fraunhofer Centre for Maritime Logistics that includes the use of flying drone containers. Is this science fiction, or a real blueprint for the future?
If you don’t mind me saying so, I think it’s nonsense. HHLA’s primary concern here is obviously to make itself appear innovative to outsiders. Even just physically, the concept would be difficult to achieve. We all know how much energy I need to lift certain weights. There are no drones that could lift a fully loaded container. So they’ve already backtracked and said they want to use this technology for empty container logistics. But I can’t see empty containers flying through the air either.
Could such a vision also be a sign of how intense competition is? Hamburg and Rotterdam are fighting for the dominant position in Europe, for example.
Definitely. And of course it’s right to talk about innovations in a port. But presenting yourself as innovative by combining drones with containers is probably just a marketing gimmick. It’s much more important to use technology to make specific processes simpler, more structured and easier to plan. We need to automate handling activities as much as possible, reduce the number of staff, optimise warehouse management through the use of IT and use autonomous vehicles to transport goods.
Which types of port vehicles are particularly suited to some form of automation?
There are basically two different ways that a vehicle can move around a port: on wheels or on rails. Naturally it’s considerably easier to automate a system that moves on rails. Accordingly, we’re currently seeing so-called rail-mounted gantry cranes being used for handling in the storage area, the yard. These are cranes that move backwards and forwards along a rail. There are actually usually two different types of them in the storage area, which could almost drive over each other because they have different widths and heights. Those, for example, would mostly work autonomously. Wheeled autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, still require demarcated work areas. Only a few terminals that want to position themselves from a technological standpoint work with such AGVs (automated guided vehicles). The vast majority of vehicles used are straddle carriers, those special transport machines with a very high design that you see in every picture of a typical container terminal. And special trucks with trailers. Straddle carriers or truck/trailer solutions are the common solution in 90 percent of ports. The obstacles that must be overcome to get a straddle carrier to drive autonomously, for example, are comparatively high.
Even their design makes it difficult. They’re very high. The idea of this kind of thing overturning in the event of a malfunction makes it almost impossible. Normally a great many straddle carriers are used for each ship, between three and five per container bridge. And there are five to six container bridges working on one ship. That means a lot of equipment is being used. If straddle carriers were driving autonomously and one malfunctioned, the whole ensemble would initially come to a standstill. That would have a negative impact on efficiency.
It’s often the details of the overall structure that ensure there’s a coherent efficiency and safety concept. Continental fits special vehicles in a port with particularly robust tyres, for example, supplemented by digital tyre pressure monitoring systems. That improves safety during handling as well as the availability of the machines, as fewer errors occur.
That’s an important issue. This kind of straddle carrier is a huge machine with a massive weight of its own. Then there’s the container on top of that. A fully loaded container weighs between 12 and 30 metric tons. That puts an enormous strain on the entire system. The more stable and reliable each component is, the better that is for safety and efficacy. Optimised use of equipment is vital to every port.
What is it that you find so fascinating about ports?
At a port you can see how global trade is developing. I also find it fascinating how the size of ships is changing. Twenty years ago, a standard container ship could transport around 5,000 containers. Today it’s 20,000. Market growth and globalisation, but also cost pressure at shipping companies are some of the reasons. The size of ships has significant repercussions for ports. A ship is never fully loaded or unloaded; a 5,000-container ship might be transporting 1,500 containers. With a 20,000-container ship there will be around 8,000 containers flooding into the container terminal within 24 to 36 hours – and they will have to be transported onwards within a relatively short space of time. That presents considerable logistical challenges.
Is there a port that you’ve been particularly impressed by?
A port is a whole world in itself. I’m always interested in what technology is used in a port and what degree of automation it has reached. There are some ports around the world, although not very many, where autonomous vehicles are already involved. Hamburg and Rotterdam, the two major competitors in Europe, are two good examples. Attempts are being made in the terminals there to increase productivity with a high degree of automation. However, recently I was particularly impressed by the port in La Spezia in northern Italy. It’s actually a small port with a relatively low level of automation, but it works unbelievably efficiently and productively. This terminal is exemplary partly because you wouldn’t expect it. Italy immediately makes you think of chaos and la dolce vita, but this port does away with all the Mediterranean clichés. Optimum productivity is celebrated within a confined space, and that’s impressive.
The trade dispute between the U.S.A. and China is having an impact on international trade in goods. How will this affect ports?
Enormously. As a basic rule of thumb, when the economy grows by 1 percent, container handling grows by 3 percent. This ratio fluctuates a little in the era of globalisation. The ratio has most recently become less favourable. Many companies have transferred business back to Europe; the positive effect that China had in the past has been subsiding since European ports such as Hamburg and Rotterdam have been recording annual growth rates of up to 15 percent. Global trade has been suffering, for example, as a result of the U.S. policies of Donald Trump with import duties and general unreliability when it comes to existing trade agreements. And when trade falters, the first thing to suffer is container shipping. Although container handling is still growing at annual rates of between 3 and 4 percent worldwide, it varies considerably between regions. Some parts of Asia and Africa are still experiencing catch-up effects, while in Europe the growth curve is flattening significantly. That doesn’t mean that individual ports will disappear. But they face a considerable struggle.
What does a modern port need to offer today in order to stay competitive?
That’s an interesting question. Hamburg, for example, is very strongly focused on container shipping; nearly 70 percent of goods turnover there comes from container handling. It’s completely different in Rotterdam, where bulk cargo plays a much more important role. That makes sense. Today, companies need to diversify more and not focus too strongly on container shipping. Because as well as developments in global trade, there are other factors that will affect container handling in the long term. Take 3D printing. Today, a lot of products are imported from China in containers. But in twenty to thirty years it could be a completely different story. Adidas, for example, has already started producing sneakers using 3D printing. Once it becomes normal to configure a product on your cell phone and then print it out in the store around the corner, fewer goods will need to be transported in containers. There are studies that predict that 3D printing could lead to a 40 percent drop in worldwide container handling. That would be a dramatic development.
What would a solution look like?
3D printing requires base materials, for example, which also need to be imported – just not in a container. A port could therefore create a position for itself by storing and refining base materials for 3D printing. Ports may increasingly regard themselves as locations for new industries. There are a lot of new technologies that need production sites near water. Look at wind energy. In Cuxhaven, parts for wind turbines are now being manufactured directly by the water. That means that these huge blades don’t have to be transported overnight from the interior of the country across half of Germany using special transport. Ports are changing, that much is certain. And I can only advise all those responsible to make sure they adapt in time.