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Why Aren’t America’s Shipping Ports Automated?


Stashed in: Shipping, Self-driving Cars, Automation, Freakonomics, Robot Jobs

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The development of containers revolutionized trading among nations. Within 5 years of “containerization,” posits one estimate, trade among nations increased 320%; within 20 years, trade increased by 790%. In 1965, before containerization, a crew could move 1.7 tons of goods per hour. After containerization, a crew could move 30 tons per hour — a 17.6x increase in productivity.

Typically, containers arrive via specialized ships at designated ports that have the particular equipment for unloading and loading the cargo as well as loading it onto trucks that can bring the goods to their destinations. The ports, and the level of efficiency with which they can process goods, have profoundly affected the global economy.

From the perspective of a ship coming into a port with containers and in the simplest terms, there a three critical pieces of technology: the “gantry cranes” that lift the containers from the ships, the transport vehicles that move the containers strategically around each port’s container yard to a designated delivery location, and the stacking cranes that pile up the containers so that trucks can come take them away. For exporters, who move containers from truck to ship, this process operates in reverse.

The machinery of these three components (gantry cranes, transport vehicles, and stacking cranes) can be operated either by humans or software. In Oakland, like most of the United States, all three are operated by humans. But the reality is that software automation can not only make this process faster and safer, but available at a lower variable cost.

While the process of automation hasn’t yet started in the Port of Oakland, Rotterdam began implementing port automation back in the 1990s. After investing hundreds of millions of dollars, Rotterdam’s port boasts an operation in which all stacking cranes that pile up the containers and transport vehicles are run by software. This is a far cry from Oakland, where every transport vehicle has a driver and each stack crane has multiple operators working in pairs for a single shift as well as dockman and clerks to help coordinate and direct the operators and vehicle flow within the container yard.

Perhaps all of this will be automated once self-driving cars are the norm. 

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