Since the beginning of containerization, terminal mechanization has been an ongoing process for freight terminals as more efficient equipment was being developed. Still, all the equipment needed to be operated by trained labor. Both port and intermodal rail terminals can be automated. An important driver of automation has been the growing size of ships, inciting ports to improve their productivity, namely their throughput and ship turnaround time, in the range of 30% more than standard terminals. Automation can be comprehensive, that is involving several stages of terminal operation, of specific when only one stage is involved at a time. For greenfield terminals (new projects), comprehensive automation is becoming standard, while existing terminal are electing to selectively automate part of their operations since a comprehensive automation could be highly disruptive and costly. Automation involves three main dimensions; within the terminal (yard), its interface and in the foreland and hinterland.
- Yard automation. Within a freight terminal, several processes can be automated. Container yard management has been automated for decades through the use of information systems. Horizontal movement automation involves using Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) such as straddle carriers or shuttles. These vehicles bring container back and forth from Automated Stacking Cranes (ASC), which are rail mounted gantry cranes managing stacks of containers that are usually aligned perpendicular to the pier. The pier side of the stack is used for loading and unloading containers coming from the pier while the gate side of the stack is used for pick up or deliveries of containers to or from the terminal gate. Such movements are usually done with trucks and chassis. Yard automation requires container position determination systems that allow to automatically know at any time through sensors the location of all the containers within the terminal. This enables their effective management.
- Terminal interface automation. Automated mooring systems are able to quickly dock and undock a ship, improving ship turnaround time. Automated Ship to Shore Cranes (ASSC) are automated version of standard portainers that are remotely controlled. An operator can control several cranes instead of one. For intermodal terminals, Automated Intermodal Cranes are a modified version of ASC that are usually wider since their serve both as loading, unloading and stacking equipment. Automated gate systems (AGS) have received a wide diffusion because of the substantial benefits they provide. They commonly require to have documentation to be provided before pick up or drop at the terminal, which improves processing time and reduce the risk of errors with the associated delays. AGS commonly rely of optical character recognition and radio frequency identification to quickly capture data about inbound and outbound containers. Photos of containers and equipment can also be automatically taken and stored. This has substantially accelerated gate time, which is a common hurdle in terminal operation. Further, truck drivers are able to use mobile technologies to schedule appointments to pick up or drop containers and even swap equipment such as chassis.
- Foreland and hinterland automation. This relates to automation processes that are not directly linked with terminal automation, but can support its benefits. Although automated ships are not possible within the foreseeable future, many aspects of ship operations have been automated (propulsion and power monitoring, ballast, etc.), reducing substantially crew size. The same issue applies to rail transportation (control systems, signaling, crossings, etc.) with automated trains a distinct reality since they operate on their own guideways (automated trains are already common for public transit systems). The introduction of automated trucks carrying containers between terminals and their hinterland is a distinct possibility, particularly along selected corridors. Automated warehouses have also been introduced in recent years, which has improved the efficiency of distribution.
Aspects of terminal automation are also integrated in emerging blockchains (and other information systems such as port community systems) that effectively link together a wide variety of port and intermodal stakeholders such as customs, freight forwarders and carriers. Like mechanization previously, automation is favoring a further standardization of terminals over three main dimensions; the configuration of the terminal to make is suitable for automation, the automation of the processes of handling containers and the automation of the systems controlling the equipment.