China’s ports smarten up

In-Depth

China is home to the largest number of smart ports and automated container terminals. With many more under development neither situation is expected to change in the short to medium term.

In 2023, China’s ports handled over 310m TEU, up 4.9% on the previous year. This was equivalent to an estimated 34% of global container throughput. Meanwhile, according to China’s Ministry of Transport (MoT), 18 automated terminals were operating with 27 facilities under development and/or undergoing upgrades.

At the end of 2023 the MoT responded to the Beijing government’s five-year (2023-27) policies of ‘Building National Strength In Transportation’ and ‘Overall Planning for the development of Digital China’. Consequently, the ministry has embarked on a programme to make increasing use of new and innovative AI and communications technologies to extend the country’s network of smart ports and digital waterways.

More smart projects are expected to be announced, particularly as such developments are also seen by the Chinese authorities as cutting emissions.

Smarter ports

The MoT’s primary objective is to build what it refers to as “intelligent sensing networks for international hub ports for containerships of 100,000 dwt capacity and above, bulk cargo terminals, and senior inland water routes such as the Yangtze River trunk line and the Xijiang River trunk line”. Specifically, these networks will be based at China’s main maritime gateways, including Ningbo-Zhoushan, Qingdao, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Tianjin, and leading river ports/inland distribution centres such as Chongqing, Nanjing and Wuhan.

A statement issued by the MoT read: “The construction of intelligent sensing networks for high-level water routes in the Yangtze River, Xijiang River and the Beijing-Hangzhou canal and water network areas shall be accelerated and the intelligent sensing level of restricted bridge reaches, key beach and dangerous reaches, navigable buildings and other high-level inland river water routes shall be improved.”

These moves will raise carrying capacity on the waterways while making transits much safer.The programme is also targeted at replacing paper documents in ports with digital versions and promoting effective and seamless data exchange between all relevant stakeholders, national government and provincial authorities. Finally, the MoT wants to help in the construction of a so-called ‘data brain’.

“Port enterprises and water route construction and maintenance entities will be urged to build a data brain integrating data, services and algorithms,” said the MoT. “The application of cloud services and AI large models will be strengthened, technology support platforms and data support platforms will be built as needed, and multi-level intelligent computing support will be increased.”

The latest automated terminal to come on stream was in December, in the port of Qingdao, Shandong province. Chen Qiang, deputy manager of the Information Technology Department at Qingdao Port, stressed the importance of the terminal’s control and data system. He referred to operations at the facility as more akin to those of using a smartphone.

“In traditional systems, data refresh speed is in seconds, leading to noticeable transmission delays and this reduces efficiency,” said Chen. “Our new control system refreshes data within milliseconds, significantly enhancing equipment dispatch times fourfold.”

Home grown

Those Government policies of building national strength and developing digital capability, are encouraging Chinese industry to develop more of its systems onshore. That is certainly apparent in the smart port programme.

There is huge significance in the Chinese claim that Phase III of the automation programme at Qingdao New Qianwan Container Terminal (QQCTN) was the first in the country to be designed and constructed entirely with China-sourced components, systems and equipment.

Phase I at QQCTN uses the Navis TOS, TMEIC crane control system and crane OCR from Camco. In comparison Phase III is being touted as the first automated terminal in China built entirely with domestic components and systems. Phase III has the capacity to handle 700,000 TEU.

The MoT said the development required over 28,000 hardware and software components which were supplied by 20 different Chinese companies. “The domestically produced technology means that China – home to the most automated container terminals in the world – can now build and run its own terminal production lines without relying on Western parts or technology,” the South China Morning Post reported.

Led by ZPMC Chinese companies have long been pushing to develop their expertise in automation technologies to the point where they can develop and execute port automation projects domestically.

That momentum is being pushed ahead by the wider geopolitical divide between the US and China around technology. Since October 2022 the Biden Administration has banned the export of semiconductor and other high-tech equipment to China. More recently, the United States has identified control and automation systems on Chinese-made cranes as a cybersecurity risk.

In China, state-controlled media are reporting that overseas “smart technology” could “prove dangerous if foreign sanctions were targeted at Chinese ports.”

Full speed ahead

In terms of implementation, China is moving faster with port automation than any other country in the world. Automated terminals have been constructed in several ports, including Beibu Gulf Port, Taicang, Tianjin and Xiamen (Xiamen Yuanhai container terminal), and the Nansha (Phase IV) development.

China's ports smarten up

Beibu Gulf Port has a unique “U-shaped” traffic flow

The Nansha facility is located within the China (Guangdong) Pilot Free Trade Zone which is also the country’s first digital service trade aggregation platform, further combining automation with digitalisation. The Global Quality Distribution Centre Digital Service Trade Platform is designed to facilitate trade and its more than 1,000 members include importers, exporters, banks, logistics companies, brokers and distributors.

The automated container terminal was opened in 2022 and its capacity has been ramped up to 4.9m TEU a year subsequently. It features a raft of technologies, including the BeiDou satellite navigation system and 5G communications. All of the facility’s yard vehicles are driverless and the STS cranes feature automation and remote control, with just five to six personnel working around the yard.

Meanwhile, a single remote operator now manages 10 STS cranes, it is claimed. Overall, the automated terminal is operated with 70% fewer staff than would be needed in a traditional terminal while the consistency of the operation means more reliable and efficient levels of services are delivered to customers, it is claimed. In 2023, over 1.5m TEU was handled at the terminal and management said that equipment availability was 99.8%.

“The terminal’s commitment to technology has been evident with 86 upgrades to our information system during the year, increasing the system test pass rate to 92.5%,” said a port spokesperson. “This technological prowess contributed to significant increases in liner vessel operational efficiencies and average berth productivity.”

Strong growth

Table 1

Even higher productivity improvements and traffic volume increases have been recorded at Beibu Gulf Port which is located in China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (GZAR). In 2023, just over 8m TEU were handled, a 14.2% increase on the previous year and almost a third higher than its 2021 throughput. In 2023, the port was the fastest growing of China’s leading container ports (see table 1).

Beibu Gulf Port management attributed the robust trading performance to a strong recovery in economic growth in the GZAR. They also noted that this year represented the first full year of opening up of China’s economy following the COVID-19 pandemic. Clearly, the huge investment in equipment, automation and digital solutions has positioned the port to take advantage of the favourable trading conditions.

The port also plays a central role in the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor, a logistics and trade development initiative sponsored by several of China’s western provinces.

The first phase of the port’s Qinzhou Automated Container Terminal (QACT), which comprised 520m of berth and the capacity to handle just over 1m TEU a year, was opened in June 2022 with a second and larger phase of development (1.6m TEU of annualised handling capacity) coming on stream towards the end of last year.

QACT is the first terminal in the world to feature a U-shaped design. Developed by ZPMC, the yard uses pairs of dual cantilever ASCs running over container stacks oriented perpendicular to the quay. To simplify the traffic flow, IGVs (intelligent guided vehicles) and other internal transport vehicles travel to positions underneath the ASCs via a roadway serving one of the cantilevers between each block.

Tianjin’s smart terminal

In Tianjin, the port authority partnered with Huawei, the telecommunications giant, and China Mobile to develop a new smart container terminal, and tangible efficiency and productivity gains have also been realised since it opened in 2022. The terminal uses a mix of 5G, cloud computing, IoT and 4L automated driving technologies with more than 70 IGVs deployed at the complex.

“Tianjin Port and Huawei used a wealth of new ICTs for our Intelligent Horizontal Transportation Management System,” said Yang Rong, general manager of Tianjin Port Second Container Terminal Co. “We created a next-generation ‘intelligent port brain’ with the system collaborating with key resources to automatically generate optimal loading and unloading plans. It also manages each piece of equipment, optimising the entire dispatch process.”

The need for automation at the port was partly fuelled by the need to address staff shortages and recruitment difficulties. The implementation has resulted in a 60% reduction in employee requirements compared with a manual operation of a similar size. The port also claims a 30% saving in costs, a near 20% reduction in energy consumption and less noise and air pollution.

China's ports smarten up

The IGVs at Tianjin were manufactured by China National Heavy Truck Group (CNHTC)

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