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Ports of Auckland’s automation dream revised

The Ports of Auckland's multi-million dollar vision of the world’s first "hybrid terminal" is still on the horizon.

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The port will operate both manual and automated straddle cranes. Source: 1 NEWS

"The Rocket Lab of Ports" as stated by Ports of Auckland's Matt Ball, has a new four-stage plan to complete its controversial automation project, with a completion date that's still somewhat undetermined.

Each stage has milestones that must be met before the project can progress to the next stage.

The milestones are based on safety, reliability, productivity, operational readiness, and with safety being paramount.

A detailed project review has found it's realistic and achievable to complete the project and go live by late March 2022.

However, this timing could impact existing import volume demand and the peak export season and cause further supply chain disruption.

For this reason, they won’t give a go-live date until later in the project.

The concept of automating the port began in August 2015, the goal was to maximise the capacity of the port by going up rather than out, as further reclamation was not an option.

Automated straddle carriers are 2.8 metres taller than the current manual straddles which allow containers to be stack four high, whereas manual straddle carriers can only stack three high.

Former CEO Tony Gibson called this a “game-changer”, as it would increase terminal capacity from just over 900,000 twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEU) a year, to 1.6 -1.7 million TEU annually, giving the port another 30 to 40 years growth capacity.

Manual staddle carrier at Ports of Auckland. Source: Ports of Auckland.

A year later, August 2016, POAL announced the decision to begin the three-year implementation automation rollout as part of a 30-year master plan. 

It would increase capacity by nearly 80 per cent, also stating that as a result around 50 to 60 stevedoring roles could go.

The initial automation rollout plan was to be done in two phases, with phase one taking place across the northern half of the port which would go live in late February 2020.

Phase two would roll out across the southern end by April. Phase one was then delayed by a month to late March due to a container volume increase that occurred in January.

This was again delayed when New Zealand entered its first level 4 lockdown which was around the same time automation across the northern berth was to go live.

A POAL annual report released on 28 September 2020 explained that they had to send staff that were not required day-to-day home to isolate, meaning the project was put on hold.

The project started again in May 2020 with a goal for phase one and two to be implemented across the entire terminal toward the end of 2020, though this was not achieved.

Staddle carrier at the Ports of Auckland. Source: Ports of Auckland

Despite all the challenges faced by POAL, phase one has been operational and has successfully handled over 100 ships to date, but the speed and reliability of the system is not yet up to expectations.

POAL paused automation again after an incident revealed a potential safety risk in the early hours of Thursday, 17 June 2021 when a software fault resulted in a container that was being carried by an automated straddle, hitting a stacked container.

No one was at risk at the time, however, they believe in different circumstances there could have been a safety risk.

“While this appears to be a very small possibility, we are not prepared to continue automated operations until that risk has been fully investigated and any necessary safety controls put in place.” (PAOL Statement 17 June 2021)

As of last week, the safety risk has been fixed and they are now ready to restart with the revised implementation plan.