The FutureLand Express departs once daily – three times on Sunday – in front of FutureLand, the information center of the latest extension of the Port of Rotterdam. The bus tours Maasvlakte 2, as the area is called, for seventy-five minutes, showing visitors 2,000 hectares of artificial ground for port activities and ‘nature’. The dredging of 240 million cubic meters of sand for land reclamation was just beginning in 2008; back then, this was, literally, future land. However, FutureLand’s promise of witnessing the future through a bus window goes beyond sightseeing record-breaking civil engineering works. Maasvlakte 2 is also home of the two most technologically advanced container terminals in the world.
Leaving the scale of the place aside – the ship-to-shore (STS) cranes are almost as high as the Erasmus bridge – to a distracted eye, operations at APM Terminals and Rotterdam World Gateway (RWG) container terminals might not seem out of the ordinary: cranes unloading containers from large vessels, followed by a relentless traffic of trucks. Nevertheless, as the bus tours APM Terminal’s premises, it becomes apparent that its blue cranes have no cabins; that driverless vehicles carry the containers, and no-access signs mark a fence around a large area where no person can be seen. Welcome to the workplace of full-automation.
In reality, a glimpse of that future had already been in sight in the Port of Rotterdam for years. In the neighboring Maasvlakte, the ECT Delta Terminal proudly announces itself as the first automated terminal in the world. In 1993, this undertaking introduced Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) that transport containers between quay and storage area, where automated stacking cranes handle them. Still, the process is not fully autonomous, as the STS cranes moving containers from vessels to AGV’s have operators on board.
ECT’s Euromax terminal followed the path of automation in 2008 with similar solutions, but the Port of Rotterdam eventually institutionalized the trend in its plans for Maasvlakte 2. With the port reportedly on the verge of reaching its growth limit, the Maasvlakte 2 expansion would underpin Rotterdam’s position as a logistical hub by giving room for container terminals to access the largest vessels. However, plans also stated that economic growth had to be combined with a strong commitment with sustainability.
For the port authority, sustainability was mainly a synonym of efficiency – efficient use of land, time and energy – and, as the argument went, nothing is more efficient that a fully-automated process. Full-automation would allow for rapid loading and unloading of an increased volume of containers and their stacking in logical sequences, while reducing idle times and energy consumption. The terminals would even “require a lot less light in the evening.” Thus, the port placed “strict demands” on the businesses aspiring to operate there. In turn, these companies have made the terminals at Maasvlakte 2 model workplaces of automation, both for robots and humans.
The ultimate frontier for the full automation of port operations were the STS cranes, and the push for overcoming this limitation is a direct result of the leap in scale in container ships. The wide port entrance and deep fairways of Maasvlakte 2 were designed to afford the passage and docking of ultra large container ships (ULCS). Loading and unloading one of those huge high-TEU capacity vessels requires STS cranes that are higher and have a longer outreach. Hence, travel distances from ship to shore increase, and faster movements are needed in order to increase productivity.
According to ABB, the Swiss company that provided the remote control systems to both terminals in Maasvlakte 2, human nature imposes limits that place the attainment of higher performance at risk. First, crane acceleration and deceleration need to be restricted with a human operator on board; under increasing pressure, movements would become more abrupt and cause strain on the worker’s body. Further, human sight would hamper moving objects with precision from a cabin placed at an unprecedented height. Both would ultimately lead to work accidents and damage to the equipment and goods.
Automation allows the cranes to run faster and smoothly, shortening vessel-processing cycle times. Optical character recognition (OCR) safely identifies objects, and on board cameras offer a full picture of the process to the remote operator in real-time, who additionally gains a more ergonomic workspace. Similar to what happens to other unmanned, automatic devices, operators supervise the crane cycle in a control room, located in an office building on site, just outside the container handling area.
In contrast the RWG, which keeps operators cabins on the STS cranes as a vestige – or maybe as a backup – those at the APM Terminals get by without them. The commitment of this company to automation is irreversible. According to Jouke Schaap, Head of Commercial at APM’s Maasvlakte 2 operations, the company does not contemplate any “backup scenario”. There is no possibility of turning back to manual control.
Aside from constant supervision, there is no need for human intervention in the whole process of loading, unloading, stacking, organizing, and transferring containers. At its core, a so-called Terminal Operating System (TOS) provides computerized coordination and management of cargo and unmanned machines. The system optimizes everything in real-time, from travel distances and crane schedules to the utilization of the yard space “in order to handle growth without adding new land.”
On top of that, additional software translates the commands of the TOS into specific movements and driving paths that are then sent to the robotic equipment. TEAMS, as this program is called, automatically avoids collisions and deadlocks. Supervision and intervention, when necessary, is facilitated by means of a visual interface showing the exact position of any piece of equipment on an operable 2D/3D overview of the terminal.
The result is an incessant mechanical choreography. Once the electric STS crane automatically places the container on a battery-powered Lift Automated Guided Vehicle (Lift AGV), this driverless wheeled platform follows its predetermined path towards the storage area, positioning itself in space in relation to a transponder grid. Special storage racks and its integrated lift system allow the Lift AGV to drop its cargo autonomously. When its battery is low, the vehicle drives to a charging station. Back in the stacks, an Automated Rail-Mounted Gantry Crane (ARMG) – also electric – approaches the rack and takes its load to its most optimal position with regard to its departure schedule. When that moment comes, the ARMG drops the container automatically either onto a truck, identified previously through OCR, or in another Lift AGV that moves it to the rail yard area. Once there, another automated crane places it on a cargo train heading to the hinterland. In the meantime, if no ship is docked, the ARMG cranes do not stay idle, but further optimize the storage area in preparation for the next vessel. All of this happens within a fenced perimeter, as, according to APM Terminals, none of the machines have sensors to detect human presence.
All in all, automation is still a pioneering endeavor, and it takes some time to refine the terminal operation system. APM Terminals says they expect to reach full potential in 2018. A second phase, which would double the size of the terminal, will come later. By then, the company anticipates its replication will be as easy as “copying and pasting.”
Away from the noise, vibration, and danger of the fenced off robot workplace, operators perform their tasks in an environment that boasts all sorts of human-centered design features. ABB calls its design concept ‘operator in focus’. This is based on the principle that the design of the control room should support the company’s operations by facilitating the ‘natural’ immersion of the employee in their tasks and responsibilities. Designing a pleasant environment for an “operator as a human being” pays off with employee “alertness, productivity, collaboration and occupational health.”
The guidelines suggested by ABB touch on all aspects of the control room. These range from recommendations on how to manage flows of people and locate additional programs – meeting rooms, lockers, and dining room – to avoid operational disturbances, to the specific characteristics of the furniture. Natural light gives operators “a reference to time” and the right selection of materials help control noise levels. Workstations should be placed at an optimal distance from each other, inviting collaboration and communication without cluttering. Most importantly, data should be presented only in the right place at the right moment: that is, contextual information should be provided in just a few monitors in the field of view of the operator so as to avoid information overload.
Such emphasis of ABB on achieving well-being and performance through ergonomics has also influenced the main human interface device in the automated process: the remote control console. Designed by No Picnic – a Swedish design agency – and awarded a Red Dot Award in 2014, the control console is a cool, compact, Nintendo-looking device. Joysticks and buttons, colored lights, icons and a visual user guide are carefully laid out to assist the remote operator’s workflow. Video game-like interfaces will change the preconceived notion society has of port workers: images of manly stevedores manually operating machines are being replaced by those of young professionals, men and women, working with camaraderie in an inviting environment.
Obviously, remote control might have far more implications for the spatial organization of work and global division of labor than ergonomics. Currently, outsourcing the supervision of all terminals of a global operator to a centralized control room is a possibility only limited by concerns about network safety and bandwidth reliability. Improved automation and artificial intelligence will eventually reduce the need for continuous human supervision. Then there will be “no limit to how remote remote-controlled operations can be.”
With their electric-motor robots running entirely on renewable energy, and their teams of humans working collaboratively, the terminals at Maasvlatke 2 anticipate the built environment of the Third Industrial Revolution. The case evidences the fact that a strong planning and policy vision can guide how private actors shape the built environment, aligning economic growth with the development of zero emission, off-grid autonomous and sustainable infrastructures and working environments. It also shows how robots, with their bodily presence in space and their limitations in how they interact with humans, are already defining how territories are managed and organized for work, bringing in new modes of spatial segregation and inclusion.
Not surprisingly, there are also losers in this transition. As it happened with the arrival of the first grain elevators in 1905, port workers in Rotterdam today fear redundancy. Seeing their livelihoods and bargaining power threatened by the future towards which the port is heading, they were able to strike an agreement in job security. FNV Havens, the main union of port workers, declared that their struggle is not against automation – which they admit is an inexorable fate – but for guaranteeing a fair transition into the new economic landscape. In fact, decidedly pushing for automation with responsibility urges planning and policy to integrate innovative answers to one of the questions posed by Jeremy Rifkin and others: what to do with those “wage earners of the industrial age” whose work has been rendered obsolete by technological and economic decisions, and replaced by others with different skills?
With a final expected cost of 2.6 billion Euros, Maasvlakte 2 will also include projects for environmental compensation and new areas of nature and recreation amounting to 300 million. Despite the fact that the sixty-five-million Euro social compensation plan secured by the union pales in comparison to both figures, moving into the future with ad hoc solutions for the social issues of automation seems unsustainable. Certainly, the Port of Rotterdam Authority has not ignored the fact that the port workers of tomorrow must be more agile and resilient. While initiatives such as the RDM Campus aim at educating the future generation of technical workers for a constantly changing future, envisioning additional projects and spaces that proactively take advantage of the social capital of current generations and support a transition to a new economy should nevertheless be an integral task not to be ignored in an automated future. In this sense, the developments of Maasvlatke 2 to come should be taken as an opportunity to reimagine and test alternative models of transition towards new economic realities.
The author wishes to thank: the Research & Development Department at Het Nieuwe Instituut; Isabelle Vries and Wouter Buck, Port of Rotterdam; Jouke Schaap, APM Terminals; Niels Dekker, Rotterdam World Gateway; Mariëtte van Dijk, FNV Vervoer; Martijn Coeveld and Leo Klink, TBA.
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 Twenty-foot equivalent unit, used to describe capacity of container ships and terminals.
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