Word has it that seaborne trade accounts for about 90% of the global trade. It’s a great choice of transport for any cargo that is an oversized and heavy load and travels a long distance. Despite all the GHG emissions, shipping is still more...
Shipping terminals are embracing automation. Currently, 30 terminals around the world operate automated container handling services with other ports developing programmes to follow suit.
Stacking yards are the main area to receive a robotic upgrade as automated straddle cranes have phased into yards in Australia and New Zealand. In some European ports both stacking yards and ship-to-shore loading is now automated. The cranes are controlled using software and are powered by electric batteries. This helps to fulfil zero-emission pledges and helps to keep running costs down.
It’s a very exciting prospect. As well as considerable savings, automation gives ports closer control over scheduling. More reliable cranes can operate at a constant pace and consequently reduce loading times. The software could be applied to a blockchain context, presenting exactly where the cargo is in the yard or vessel and show the expected schedule to the supply chain.
However, this all comes at a serious cost. Purchasing automated equipment costs ports millions, perhaps even billions. This could cut jobs in high salary countries as port owners realise the cost benefits.
The Port of Los Angeles estimated that automation will cut their workforce by 50%. These are astonishing figures and represents a contemporary worry. The Independent newspaper suggested a total of 30% of British jobs were threatened by automation and AI (artificial intelligence). Some envisage a dystopian future for Earth. A world of disposable humans, irreversible unemployment, wars against AI and people are seriously concerned.
In response to public fear, Silicon Valley has advocated for a universal basic income to offset mass redundancies and others suggest a heavy tax on robotics to finance it but this isn’t good enough.
This type of policy seems straight from the mind of Huxley or Orwell. These people are forgetting a job is a fundamental part of people’s well-being. It’s easy for tech companies to advocate universal income as their jobs seem secure.
But you can stop planning your Luddite resistance. The fear technology shall replace jobs is not new. For the shipping sector, containerisation was met with resistance with dockers unions conducting mass pickets and protests in Britain. The country’s logistical capabilities suffered because it was slow to accept the inevitable and by this time the world had moved on.
Automation is just another challenge for the industry. It’s an inevitable progression we must embrace, not fear. These machines are here to complement human skill not replace it. Automating the routine repetitive jobs enables us to face the gritty logistical problems that challenge us day to day. In our industry, human experience can’t be replaced because people make the real difference.
But if automation is to truly promise efficiency in the container shipping industry it must be multi-faceted. It is futile to spend billions on a brand new automated port when trucks still breakdown and there are queues outside of ports. Industry innovators need a wider scope. They must look right across the supply chain, not just one process, to make automation worthwhile.
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