The importance of data for automated ports

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
22 November 2021

Automating operations at ports through the use of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) improves efficiency and can cut carbon emissions, according to a study.

The study, from a team of academics at ESCP Business School, said fully automated container hubs were expected to cut operating costs by 25-55% and increase throughput by 13-35%.

However, just 3% of container terminals around the world are partially or fully automated. The report said this was mainly due to the cost of capital investments and resistance from labour unions.

Researchers examined the potential use of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) at Piraeus port in Greece, which is non-automated, in terms of journeys made, routes, distance traveled, and emissions.

“In the context of containers’ handling on the shoreside of port terminals, AI-driven approaches have a demonstrable impact on the operational and environmental sustainability performance of the respective activities, particularly in terms of travel distance, gaseous emissions, and energy consumption,” said the report, published in the International Journal of Production Research.

However, the report said it was important to use electric-powered AGVs to harness the full environmental benefits of automation.

“Notwithstanding the evident financial benefits in terms of productivity and increase throughput considered in a return of investment appraisal, the environmental impact is also an essential parameter that this study highlights,” said the research.

“Nonetheless, effective implementation of port automation and/or automation interventions in non-automated ports requires careful planning in both dimensions and particularly in the environmental impact of internal-combustion powered AGVs. This is particularly important considering the high barrier to entry for electrification in freight transport vehicles.

“Therefore, the need for measuring environmental performance needs to be established since the introduction of AGVs in non-automated port settings can have an increase in emissions from the improvement of operational efficiency at terminals and overshadow the tangible benefits from increased operation (e.g. meeting demand in less time, less docking time of vessels, fewer cases of damaged cargo, fuel consumption efficiency, fewer accidents).”

Professor Spiros Papaefthimiouc, academic director for the Executive Master in Future Energy at ESCP Business School, said: “Our research proves that AI is useful for the effective and efficient management, promoting sustainable development.

“However, the adoption of automated operations in several fields requires data analytics capabilities (e.g. data curation, data processing, etc), for capturing insightful information and improving operations.”

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