Making the case for AutoStrads

In-Depth

The successful conversion of one of the largest container terminals in the US to an AutoStrad operation will be an eye-opener for other US terminals.

APM Terminals Pier 400 terminal at the Port of Los Angeles is now an automated straddle carrier terminal, running with Kalmar’s AutoStrad machines.

As has been noted earlier, APM Terminals (APMT) began operating the Kalmar AutoStrads on the former California United Terminals site within Pier 400 sometime in 2020. More recently it has cleared the RTG blocks from a much larger area of Pier 400 and sold or relocated all of the terminal’s RTGs to other terminals. The AutoStrads are now running the horizontal transport between the quay and the stack, yard stacking, and the truck exchange. Empty box storage will still be handled by top picks that interchange containers with the AutoStrads where required.

One of the key points about Pier 400 is its size. At around 507 acres, it occupies over 28% of all container terminal property in the Port of Los Angeles and it has a capacity of 3.3m TEU annually. That figure comes from an earlier Environmental Impact Report (EIR), citing a Los Angeles Harbor Department study in 2019 that concluded the capacity of the 484-acre site (smaller than the figure of 507 acres AMPT uses today) is 3.3m TEU per annum based on its available berth.

Terminal design consultants might not agree, but Pier 400 is not in the position of requiring a high-stacking yard gantry crane system in the short to medium term. Other terminals in the US are in a similar position, and they are no doubt watching how the conversion at Pier 400 unfolds. When APMT shipped the RTGs out of Pier 400 it sent a very clear message about the maturity of Kalmar’s AutoStrad technology.

The strad advantage

APMT declined to comment for this feature report, but it should be noted at the outset that the equipment selection at Pier 400 should not be seen as a judgement on one type of automated technology over others. APM Terminals executives have previously stressed to WorldCargo News that it is not looking for the one single best automated technology for all its terminals. Based on its extensive experience with different manned and automated systems APM Terminals is implementing different systems at different facilities. Equipment selection is based on the business and operational requirements of the individual terminal itself, as well as technology considerations.

Nevertheless, the selection of AutoStrads for a terminal with a capacity of over 3m TEU on the US West Coast is new ground. The West Coast market is characterised by import-heavy vessel calls with relatively high call exchanges and zero transhipment cargo. There is no mixed (manned and automated machines) traffic flow and a very rigid union environment to consider.

In an interview with WorldCargo News Timo Alho, Director, Product Management and Business Development, Horizontal Transportation, Kalmar, discussed the advantages of its AutoStrad system for large terminals handling over 1m TEU.

Key among these is the flexibility of the AutoStrad system. The entire yard, including the rail operation if required, can be managed with a single type of equipment. AutoStrads allow all the equipment to be utilised against the vessel, or for landside operations including the truck gate as required.

The AutoStrads can operate under the crane portal and in the backreach.

There are currently 132 AutoStrads at Pier 400. All the equipment is operated in a global pool, where the system selects the most optimal machine for each job.

On the quayside AutoStrads achieve decoupling under the quay cranes, meaning both an AutoStrad and an STS crane can ground a container without having to wait for each other. “This is a key to highest quay crane performance, and expensive and complex dual trolley quay cranes are not needed,” Alho added. Furthermore, AutoStrads can operate in the backreach or under the crane portal. That creates more flexibility for STS cranes to work closely together and for the placement of hatch covers.

An AutoStrad system is particularly flexible at the landside truck interface. Pier 400 has 144 truck interchange lanes. Any truck lane can be served by any machine and dual moves (an export and an import container) can be handled from the same lane by two different pieces of equipment. Furthermore, the infrastructure for landside interchange zones is fully separate from the equipment. Each lane is independent, so a terminal has the flexibility to add more lanes as required.

Empties and rail

Another key factor in the US market is how well automated equipment can manage large amounts of empty containers that are typically stacked by top handlers. Empty box dwell times can be relatively long on the US West Coast. Due to the trade imbalance, empties are often stored for long periods before being sent back to Asia on “empty loaders”.

Alho noted that AutoStrads can operate with empty depots using specific transfer areas to interchange large amounts of empty boxes from the manned side to the automated side, and vice versa. “The area is practically a large ‘airlock’ that has a mechanism to safely segregate the area either for manned or automated equipment,” he said. Empty handlers can fill the area before it is switched to automated mode, allowing the AutoStrads to enter and take the containers to the automated yard or the quayside. If required, empties can also be transferred directly to the quayside with terminal tractors using a dedicated manned vehicle lane.

Kalmar also believes transferring containers to an on-dock rail exchange is simpler with its AutoStrad system. This is particularly the case where a terminal uses manned or automated RMGs over the rail tracks, as grounding containers under an RMG cantilever is simpler than managing handling to and from tractor trailer sets.

53ft boxes

Another factor that is important on the US West Coast is the flexibility of AutoStrads to handle inbound 53ft domestic containers. All new US domestic boxes are manufactured in China. They are shipped to the US using a mix of breakbulk vessels and container vessels using special loading arrangements, including adaptor racks.

While this might not be the ideal business for an automated terminal from an operational perspective, it is a lucrative side hustle on which terminals do not want to miss out.  LBCT handles imported 53ft boxes using tractor trailer sets to bypass its ASC and AGV operation. AutoStrads, however, can pick, ground and stack 53ft containers when the machine is equipped with a WTP (Wide Twistlock Position) spreader or a suitable adapter. “At the moment remote control is needed for placing those containers on a truck trailer, all other handling actions can be performed without human interaction,” Alho added.

Capex and Opex

When it comes to Capex and Opex, AutoStrads have some advantages over other terminal systems. While cautioning that actual capex depends on the specific terminal design, Alho estimated a ‘ballpark’ investment cost for an AutoStrad system for a 1m TEU capacity terminal in the western hemisphere to be €150m, including equipment, automation systems and infrastructure.

In comparison, Alho estimates the cost of converting a 1m TEU RTG brownfield RTG terminal into an all-electric ARTG and automated terminal tractor operation at around €190m. Implementing ASCs, with associated infrastructure for the crane rails, and AGVs is significantly more expensive at an estimated €300m.

Alho cautions that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, as the equipment has different delivery and depreciation schedules. The delivery time for an AutoStrad is roughly half that of an ASC, but the ASCs have a much longer lifecycle.

On the Opex side, the situation is less clear. Straddle carriers have a winch hoist system and most machines at this point have a diesel engine, both of which require regular maintenance. On the other hand, this maintenance can be scheduled, and the impact of an issue with one machine during operation is minimal.

Using just one type of automated equipment to achieve a fully automated yard system also has advantages in spare parts and maintenance expertise. Compared to systems that use multiple equipment types, AutoStrads have fewer automation systems to upgrade and maintain. Overall, Alho stressed that the “TCO of an AutoStrad system is very competitive.”

Migration and ramp-up

Exactly how Pier 400 got to the point where it was able to let go of its RTGs and operate as a fully automated facility is not known. Unlike Patrick’s Botany terminal in Sydney, which opted for a “big bang” approach where the terminal was shut down and fully converted to AutoStrads over four days, Pier 400 took a phased approach.

What is known is that the Pier 400 ramp-up was quicker than some of APMT’s other automated terminals. Previous CEO Morten Engelstoft has said that the time for the go-live and ramp-up period at Pier 400 was 27 months, compared to 37 months at Tanger Med in Morocco and 50 months at MVII in Rotterdam.

While APMT does not comment on the productivity of individual terminals, it is clear that parent A.P. Moeller Maersk is pleased with how its automated facilities are performing. APMT experienced a 29% increase in its North American container volume in Q1 2024, primarily driven by significant growth on the US West Coast, where Pier 400 is its main facility.

Commenting on its performance, CEO Vincent Clerk said its terminals business is developing nicely and Maersk intends to “further the journey in operational efficiency and automation.”

The road to zero emissions

AutoStrads offer a path to zero emissions, which is required by 2030 under the Clean Air Action Plan for Los Angeles and Long Beach. The technology is not as proven as battery AGVs, but Kalmar’s FastCharge technology is designed to support electrifying straddle carrier fleets. With FastCharge, straddles can be charged in short periods at suitable times between work tasks. This is supported by the Kalmar One automation system.

Earlier this year it was announced that Kalmar will supply two new Kalmar electric AutoStrads, and retrofit two existing hybrid straddle carriers, at Pier 400 this year. In what is being called an “electrification pilot” the battery machines will have an operation time of 45–50 minutes and a charging time of approximately five to six minutes.

Announcing the pilot Jon Poelma, Managing Director of APMT Pier 400, said it is looking to gain a greater understanding of how to covert its existing  hybrid equipment fleet to fully electric machines “with our onsite mechanic workforce.” APMT is aiming to achieve “net-zero emissions” at Pier 400 before 2030.

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