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Published: November 2017      

Setting out on the RTG automation road

Kalmar has its first customer for RTG automation, with a phased introduction at Dublin Ferryport.

Earlier this year, Kalmar announced that Dublin Ferryport Terminals (DFT) in Ireland had placed an order for a Kalmar AutoRTG system, with delivery of the first two of eight RTGs to start this year.

At its Explore Automation event in Tampere in September, Tero Kokko, senior vice president, Automation and Projects, Kalmar, said that the company is ready to deliver new automated RTGs, and to tackle brownfield automation projects with the retrofitting of automation technology to existing machines.

At most RTG terminals, however, it is not easy to divide the terminal into zones where fully automated equipment can be fenced off from manned equipment and road trucks. Automation is, therefore, a much more difficult proposition. Accordingly, the project at DFT includes starting with remote control and semi-automated functions on the RTGs, then moving to add fully automated features in the stacking area at a later date.

Decision time

Alec Colvin, general manager at DFT, explained that the company has several reasons for deciding that now is the time to bring crane automation into its operation.

DFT is part of the container and terminal division of Irish Continental Group. It handles approximately 325,000 TEU each year, and is anticipating growth of around 20% over the next five years. It leases the site in Dublin on a long-term basis (150 years, starting in 1972), and owns all the equipment.

At just 30 acres in total area, the terminal is relatively small, and it handles vessels that are mostly in the 900 TEU range, connecting Dublin with the UK and Europe. Most vessels call on a weekly rotation that allows a maximum of 40 port hours per week, putting pressure on productivity.

Dublin is a very competitive market, with three competing terminals, and “switching is easy”, remarked Colvin. DFT must operate very competitively, and it outsources labour. RTG operators are a significant proportion of costs – 39% of the terminals total labour bill, and 14% of all operating costs.

More than that, labour availability has become an issue. In Dublin, people do not want to do low skilled jobs, said Colvin, and, due to a housing shortage and the high cost of property in Dublin, there is no large immigrant workforce.

At the same time, the eight Kalmar RTGs that DFT operates today were purchased in 1999, and are coming to the end of their working life. For DFT, the need to replace the RTG fleet creates a window for the company to “restart the cycle” and introduce an operating method that addresses its wider issues, added Colvin.

Move to automation

For DFT, automation has to be supported by a sound business case, and that centres on reducing the operator-to-equipment ratio, and improving the terminal’s safety performance. It did consider RMGs, but these are not ideal for its configuration, with a 90-degree berth. Going to RMGs would also have required planning permission, whereas RTGs do not.

DFT is willing to take some risk, but it is not betting everything on achieving full automation of its RTG operations. Colvin said that what the market can deliver has changed significantly in the last 18 months, and DFT is confident that the technology is now at the point where it can successfully take the operators off the cranes, and then introduce some automated aspects into the operation.

Full automation is not on DFT’s agenda – it is too difficult, and “there is no point at this moment in time”, stated Colvin. He was also clear that DFT is not banking on an increase in productivity from automation itself, in terms of a direct increase in the speed of container handling.

“There is no doubt automated machines are slower,” he added, due to the “decision-making process” as the cranes operate.

For DFT, however, semi-automation offers the opportunity to have one operator control, or “supervise”, some aspects of the operation of more than one crane at a time, and there is a sound business case to implement such a system.

Step by step

Kalmar has laid out a ‘road map’ for how terminals progressively introduce remote control, and then automation into an RTG operation (see accompanying table). DFT will begin with the first two RTGs operating them fully manually by remote control, according to step 1.1 on Kalmar’s road map. DFT regards this stage as low-to-medium risk, requiring a change of the drivers’ skill sets.

Step 1.2 will introduce supervised operations, whereby the crane gantry and trolley movements to the target location are controlled automatically, but the remote operator must be at the desk, holding a control to confirm that he or she is supervising the operation. This stage requires the introduction of the Kalmar Terminal Logistics System (TLS), and its integration with the TOS.

DFT classifies the risk of this stage as medium, and expects changes to business processes and new automation processes will slow down productivity initially.

Step 2 introduces automated pick-andplace in the stack, with remote supervised gantry motion. The remote operator will also handle the road truck lane and any exceptions handling. This is also medium risk, with automation processes expected to slow down productivity initially.

Step 2.2 brings together automated pick and place in the stacks with automated gantry travelling for full automation of all operations except the truck interface. This would enable the ARTGs to handle shuffling moves fully automatically.

Colvin said that DFT views step 2.2 as medium-to-high risk, and it “will be difficult to achieve” at its operation. However, as DFT is open to road trucks for 72 hours per week, there are 100 further hours when it can make use of step 2.2 to operate its RTGs in a “controlled machine environment, where appropriate controls could be introduced to allow for the implementation of this stage”, added Colvin.

DFT will have to make some infrastructure and layout changes for the new ARTGs. It has been handling an increasing number of palletwide 45ft containers, which are wider than 8ft units. This closes up the gaps between the container rows. To land the RTG spreader automatically, Kalmar prefers a minimum 400mm gap between containers (although this depends on the application).

Allowances must also be made for the cable reel system, fencing around the stacking block, and guards around the RTG wheel bogies, which DFT has determined is necessary. Altogether, the RTGs will be 4m wider than the existing machines, to achieve one more stacking row.

From the start, the machines will have no cabins, something Colvin said was important, in order to maintain the motivation and the discipline required to drive the project forwards.

RTG testing ground

The ARTG displayed and demonstrated at Kalmar’s Explore Automation event in Tampere in September was a retrofit, 16-wheel machine. Operating in a test block, it demonstrated the different operating modes in Kalmar’s automation migration path: manual with remote, supervised, and fully automated operations over the stack.

Tampere is a testing and development site, and Kalmar has developed a range of options for the crane control systems necessary for automation. For autosteering, Kalmar can use DGPS, laser scanners or transponders in the ground. Which is the best option depends on the location, the layout, and existing systems at the terminal.

For landing and positioning the spreader, the ARTG is equipped with Kalmar’s 3D target positioning measurement system, load position measurement system, and a micro motion system for positioning the spreader.

The ARTG system can operate with a maximum ground slope of 2 degrees. To achieve automated pick-and-place in the stack, a 400mm distance between containers is required, but this may be able to be narrowed, depending on the application.

With the system in Tampere, Kalmar demonstrated that its ARTG system can support automated operations over the stack, enabling one remote operator to support several ARTGs from a single remote control desk.

There is a difference of opinion in the industry over how to design and implement a remote control system, and in particular what the remote operator needs to see in real time. The remote control operator in Tampere had access to views of 12 different camera angles of the operation, and the crane was connected to the automation system by fibre-optic cable running in a cable reel.

Kalmar’s view is that, at this point, only a fibre-optic cable provides the data throughput its remote control system requires. By contrast, the new Hutchison terminal at Laem Chabang in Thailand will feature ARTGs from ZPMC that use Vahle conductor bars, and SMG systems for power and data transmission.

Kalmar’s RTG test track in Tampere also has a conductor rail system, with data capability from a different supplier. Kalmar personnel explained that they have tested this and other options, including cellular LTE networks and a Fluidmesh system, but none had met the requirement to support the 12 angles of view that it requires, plus data from the TOS, CMS, sensors etc.

Keeping the TOS

DFT does not use Navis software, and it is not changing its TOS for the automation project. When DFT made the transition from straddle carriers to RTGs in the late 1990s, it implemented a TOS from a company called Softpak, based in the Netherlands. Although it is not a well-known name in the TOS market, Softpak has its TOS in several small to medium-sized terminals.

Speaking to WorldCargo News, Colvin said he is confident that Softpak can stay with DFT as it makes its journey into automation. In the past, the company has been very responsive to making changes requested by DFT, and it has helped the terminal keep its IT costs to a reasonable level.

For the RTGs, DFT’s approach to picking a vendor was to partner with Kalmar, and not to issue a tender to the market for its new RTGs. It needed to reduce the technical and financial risks of the project, and decided that solesourcing was the best way to achieve that goal.

Explaining this further, Colvin said that DFT had three main reasons for picking Kalmar: its commitment to automation, demonstrated by the level of investment in the Tampere competence centre; its references in ASCs and remote control; and DFT’s own experience with Kalmar.

On the last point, DFT and Kalmar go back to 1999, when the companies worked together on delivering some of the world’s first RTGs with DGPS (Kalmar’s then SmartRail system). Kalmar has been providing on-site engineering support since then, and “that cooperation has survived the highs and lows of the industry over the last two decades”, said Colvin. “We’ve found Kalmar’s commitment and support excellent.”

An alternative view in the industry is that the best way to deliver an automation project is to write specifications that very tightly and prescriptively define all the automation systems, components and interfaces. Colvin said that this would not work for DFT because, as a small company, “we can’t spec it and pick a partner”, and the company did not see the need to hire consultants to do what it regards as Kalmar’s role.

DFT’s contract with Kalmar includes payment for delivering a remote control system, and separate milestones, such as when the cranes achieve automated pick-and-place over the stack with supervised gantry travel. Colvin stressed that DFT’s ambitions with respect to RTG automation are “fledgling”, and that “we believe Kalmar has the desire and wherewithal to overcome the undoubted obstacles on this journey”.

Kalmar will also provide service, maintenance and technical support via a site-based engineering team that will have a permanent presence at the terminal.


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This complete item is approximately 2000 words in length, and appeared in the November 2017 issue of WorldCargo News, on page 24.

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