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OM in the News: Massive Robots Keep Docks Shipshape

March 28, 2016
. Cargo containers are carried around the Port of Los Angeles by automated machines guided by a magnetic grid embedded in the pavement. Autonomous “straddle carriers,” as they are known, pick up containers that have just come off the ship, and transport them to stacks to be organized. Automated machines pick up and carry cargo containers to stacks at the Port of Los Angeles, guided by a magnetic grid embedded in the pavement. A back-end technology system runs this robotic crane that sets containers in place in long stacks and retrieves them when truckers arrive to pick up the cargo. Cameras on the stacking crane assist workers in the port terminal office, guiding each container the last few feet to rest on a truck bed. Inside the port terminal office, a worker gently sets containers on truck beds using a joystick and live images of the machinery. On average, he loads more than one truck a minute in this way. Once they are off the ship, cargo containers at the TraPac terminal in Los Angeles are transported entirely by robots until they are set on trucks and carried off the terminal. Automated machines carry cargo containers around the TraPac marine terminal. Robotic cranes set containers in long stacks and retrieve them to load onto trucks. Cargo containers are carried around the TraPac marine terminal at the Port of Los Angeles by automated machines guided by a magnetic grid embedded in the pavement. PreviousNext 2 of 9 fullscreen Robotic cranes set containers in long stacks and retrieve them to load onto trucks. PATRICK T. FALLON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL Autonomous “straddle carriers,” as they are known, pick up containers that have just come off the ship, and transport them to stacks to be organized

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Cargo containers are carried around the Port of Los Angeles by automated machines guided by a magnetic grid embedded in the pavement.

At one of the busiest shipping terminals in the U.S., more than two dozen giant red robots wheeled cargo containers along the docks on a recent morning, handing the boxes off to another set of androids gliding along long rows of stacked containers before smoothly setting the boxes down in precise spots. The tightly designed dance at this Los Angeles terminal offers a window on how global trade will move in the near future: using highly automated systems and machinery, with minimal human intervention, to handle the flood of goods that new free-trade agreements will push to the docks.

“Automation, which boosts terminal productivity and reliability while cutting labor costs, is critical to the ability of ports to cope with the surging trade volumes and the huge megaships that are beginning to arrive in the U.S.,” writes The Wall Street Journal (March 28, 2016). Technology can reduce the amount of time ships spend in port and improve productivity by as much as 30%. At a cost of over $1 billion to complete and the capacity to handle 3.3 million 20-foot container units—nearly half of the L.A. port’s volume last year— automation is a big bet on the future.

The U.S. has been slow to adopt the technology because of years of resistance by longshore labor unions. Some studies have shown robotic cargo handling can reduce the need for longshore labor by as much as 50%. In 2002, the issue came to a head as West Coast port employers locked out workers during bitter contract talks, shutting down the Pacific ports for 11 days.

Ports elsewhere have seen the investment pay off. An automated terminal in Rotterdam uses about half the labor needed at its conventional terminal at the same port.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. What are the advantages and risks of port automation?
  2. Why the need to automate now?
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