“The only constant in life is change,” so the famous saying goes. This oft-quoted phrase certainly rings true for terminal container yards and their role in the ports of the future. In an industry undergoing rapid change – driven by factors like technology, digitalisation, and the need to cut costs and environmental footprint – the future role of container yards is still something of an unknown quantity. One thing is certain though – change is most certainly on the horizon.
In today’s container terminals, the yard essentially acts as a buffer between water and landside operations. It provides a vital link between these two key operational ends of the terminal, where on the one side we can have container vessels, barges and feeders, and on the other side road-going trucks and trains. You could liken the yard to a librarian – storing, stacking and organising the huge number of items – in this case containers rather than books – that move through the terminal every day.
The potential impact of on-demand road transport capacity
“Ordering an Uber” already means something completely different than taking a cab home. In the taxi industry Uber intentionally creates overcapacity to ensure availability with the cost of resources, and now the attention is to the logistics industry. Already making inroads in the US, the service was launched with a vision of matching truck drivers with available capacity to available loads in order to reduce deadhead mileage. If the service has the same impact as it has had on the taxi industry around the world, it could completely change the face of the container terminal yard. With sufficient capacity available at very short notice to transport containers away from the terminal, the need for storage space in the yard would diminish significantly, especially in import-export type operations.
In a similar vein to Uber Freight, we could also see fleets of self-driving AGV-type vehicles that would use public roads to transport cargo away from the terminal. The additional overcapacity enabled by these vehicles could significantly decrease the need for yards to store and manage large volumes of containers brought in by sea.
From hype to hyperloop
Another vision with possible impact on container handling is the Virgin Hyperloop One system that can be used to transport freight and people on-demand, direct from origin to destination. Passengers or cargo are loaded into the hyperloop vehicle, which accelerates gradually via electric propulsion through a low-pressure tube. The vehicle floats above the track using magnetic levitation, travelling at high speed.
In the context of the shipping and terminal industry, we could see a future where dedicated freight hyperloop pods are used to distribute containers via a tunnel network. Looking further into the future, this technology could significantly reduce the need for cargo feeders, barges, rail networks and even container ships.
Although it might sound like something from a sci-fi movie, this future is closer than you might think. Virgin One Hyperloop’s goal is to have operational systems by the mid 2020s. Furthermore, Virgin One Hyperloop together with DP World, one of the largest global terminal operators and a major Kalmar customer, have already introduced DP World Cargospeed – an international brand for hyperloop-enabled cargo systems that aims to deliver freight at the speed of flight and closer to the cost of trucking.
Man-machine and machine-machine in perfect harmony
Taking the stance that we should simply automate everything in order to achieve maximum efficiency risks losing the flexibility that is important to terminal operators. In the container terminals of the future it is my hope that we will see increasingly close collaboration between people and automated equipment.
We can already see collaboration robots, known as cobots, in action in industrial settings such as production lines. Unlike their autonomous robot counterparts, cobots are designed to physically interact with humans. I believe this approach will open up a world of opportunities to improve terminal operations.
Whereas nowadays we have different types of automated equipment working in segregated silos on specific tasks, I believe that terminals can realise significant benefits from increasing interaction between different types of machines. These mixed operating modes could include manually operated equipment too. This comes back to my earlier point about flexibility: regardless of how carefully every move in a container yard is planned, you can never predict the future, and by bringing together different automated equipment types and people, challenges can more quickly be solved on the fly.
Keeping the balance in logistics chains
Even if we were able somehow to introduce all these new technologies and modes of operation tomorrow, they would not solve the problem of the large amount of wastage – wasted time, fuel and so on – that exists in the container terminal industry today. To fully replace the need for yards at container ports, the innovations we’ve touched upon – Uber Freight, on-road AGVs and the Hyperloop – would require a disproportionate amount of resources. We still need the yard in order to keep resource needs in balance and not introduce any new sources of waste.
The yard also serves the supply chain at large - it helps e.g. production facilities and distribution centres keep a suitable buffer to meet their targets. By storing cargo at the yard, various players can serve their customers just in time without keeping too big of a stock at their own hands.
New machine-to-machine and machine-to-human methods of collaboration are needed to retain flexibility and service levels for customers. Enabling better predictability with data is one thing, but before we can do that we need to innovate new ways to collaborate.
It is for this reason that I see the yard continuing to play an important role. Yes, the equipment may change in nature; sure, we might see innovative new ways of transporting cargo away from terminals; but regardless, the yard will still exist in one form or another, performing an essential role as an easily manageable and cost-efficient buffer between water and landside operations.