7 basic principles for successful terminal automation

By Sylvia Wong | June 18, 2019

As is the case with all process industries, increasingly sophisticated automation is the route to the safest, cleanest and most affordable future for complex operating environments like maritime container port terminals.

To automate terminal handling processes, several complex systems need to work synergistically to manage varying operational scenarios. Old methods for integrating conventional, transactional systems are not effective for systems which need to react in real time. Relying solely on legacy approaches for the integration of automated systems is an ineffective use of powerful optimization tools that can result in significant missed opportunities for growth and sustainability.

While each project is unique, some basic principles for automation success are consistent:

  1. Control the process. One of the most valuable shifts in perspective that comes from observing other industries is the philosophy of controlling the process rather than simply coordinating equipment. This leads to a functional understanding of how to integrate systems and equipment effectively that takes into account potential complexities. Once you’ve defined a process-oriented vision for automation, you’re set up for maximal success in implementation.
  2. Form a strategic plan. Another key to deriving the most value from automated systems involves a strategic plan for implementation. Unlike other forms of investment such as equipment upgrades, the common barriers to adoption (cost and time) can be markedly lower when carrying out the right steps to automation. That’s because automation, when carefully customized and calibrated to your business’ specific requirements and operating conditions, can be achieved incrementally.
  3. Conduct staged development. Staged development allows each phase of adoption to start working quickly, and to demonstrate a positive return on investment along the way, not just at the end. Staged adoption for automation has worked in many industries from mining and metals to energy and infrastructure.
  4. Use trusted standards. Operators can also leverage automation standards that have been demonstrated to be successful in other industries. These may include standards for alarm management, human-machine interface design, and integration of control with execution management systems. This simplifies integration work and can reduce the contention between vendor equipment. Such standards also reflect best practices for human-centred design, so you can be confident you’re providing the tools to help maximize the effectiveness of operators.
  5. Integrate cross-disciplinary consultation. Integration of equipment with automation systems is a multidisciplinary activity which requires the application of solid engineering principles. Because of the significant software component involved in automation projects, software development can often become separated and run independently of equipment and civil works. In reality, because the software will be running physical machinery, multiple disciplines need to be consulted and involved through all phases of development, from design reviews and hazard and operability studies to operational readiness exercises.
  6. Measure data intelligently. Paying attention to the data used and how it is used by other industries is important. Aggregated metrics available through conventional terminal operating systems are not typically adequate to perform root cause analysis of complex operations. While high fidelity data is available through many onboard equipment systems, it is often siloed and unavailable for integration with other data. Both equipment and operational data need to be integrated in a way that supports the context of operational processes to enable root cause analysis and effective decision making. By incorporating what other industries have learned about the value of combining high-level KPIs with high-fidelity data in a successful automated system, operators can ensure they are deriving the most meaningful information and value from their automation efforts.
  7. Leverage automation successes from other industries. Finally, many industries have already developed know-how, mature processes and proven implementation methodologies due to their long history in process control and automation. Working with a partner who has proven experience and successes in this domain, and not just conventional transactional systems, will help accelerate your journey and ensure success.

The efficacy of these strategies has already been demonstrated for port terminals. The application of insights from other industries was instrumental to the successful implementation of an automated container terminal project. Read more in this article.

A promising future for terminal automation

With currently available technologies, terminal operators can capitalize on equipment and process data to improve their operations. While this data becomes most powerful in fully automated operations, benefit can also be gained in conventional operations with basic telemetry.

Extracting industry insights and initiating powerful integration tools relies on the expert input of an experienced industry consultant with a deep understanding of both the operations side and the technology side of the equation. Setting this strategic path in motion can be a catalyst for growth and sustainability.

The future of automation, done right, has the potential to transform working conditions, business profitability and long-term economic viability.