Automated port terminal in Qingdao marks remarkable first year

China Plus Published: 2018-06-09 09:21:52
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A little over a year ago, a fully automated container terminal began operation in the Chinese port city of Qingdao, using only robots and machines to load and unload shipping containers.

Now the terminal, the first of its kind in Asia, has already set a world record in automated efficiency, with the expansion of a second terminal underway.

The Qingdao New Qianwan Container Terminal, with a total shoreline length of 2,088 meters, began operation on May 11th, 2017.

Visitors to the terminal will very quickly realize this is not a traditional port powered by manual labor by any means.

The Port of Qingdao. [Photo: China Plus]

The Port of Qingdao. [Photo: China Plus]

Rows of automatic and gigantic stacking cranes are moving fast but also orderly, with their robotic arms lifting and dropping containers with perfect precision.

On the ground, automated vehicles are busy transporting the containers from one location to another.

The only sounds one can hear are from the movements of the machines, with no human workers in sight.

The only staff here are the managers and monitoring staff, who work out of the control room.

"The entire operation is computerized and digitalized. There are no human workers sending commands in the backroom. This design goes along with China's industrial revolution and the 'Made in China 2025' strategy," explains Yang Jiemin, a deputy general manager at the terminal.

Automatic stacking cranes transport shipping containers at the automated terminal. [Photo: China Plus]

Automatic stacking cranes transport shipping containers at the automated terminal. [Photo: China Plus]

Artificial intelligence is heavily used, almost in every single aspect of operations at the terminal.

Work plans are generated automatically, replacing tedious human calculation. Various devices and machines are assigned to different job sequences, based on the specifications of ships and containers.

Intelligent Quality Control can automatically scan the ships' contour and design the best operation paths.

Through laser scanning and positioning, the program can locate the four corners of each container, which also means the stacking cranes can work in complete darkness and operate 24/7.

The robot arms on the cranes can then accurately grab the containers and put them onto the 38 driverless trucks.

The trucks, working with over 20,000 underground transponders, can automatically transport the containers to desired locations. Laser anti-collision systems and ultrasound sensing systems ensure the safe and smooth operations of these trucks.

The trucks also know when it is time to go for a recharge and will do so automatically.

Then the containers are again picked up, stacked and put on trucks to be transported out of the terminal.

Even the final gate inspection is automatic, with information of each container checked and detected by a radioactive process.

Yang Jiemin, Deputy General Manager of Qingdao New Qianwan Container Terminal, is photographed at the terminal on June 8th, 2018. [Photo: China Plus]

Yang Jiemin, Deputy General Manager of Qingdao New Qianwan Container Terminal, is photographed at the terminal on June 8th, 2018. [Photo: China Plus]

Yang Jiemin says the automated process, which is powered by electricity, also benefits the environment and ensures the workplace safety of the staff.

"This operation model represents the future development trend of container terminals. The first advantage of our terminal is that it's green. Traditionally, terminals have relied heavily on human labor and diesel engines. Our terminal does not have any emission pipes, achieving zero emission and sustainability. Secondly, it's very safe. We have no workers on site. The machines and our staff in the control room are completely separated," says Yang.

The total investment in the automatic terminal was around 3 billion yuan, or 468 million US dollars, which is only 75% of the cost required for such ports built in other countries.

The construction plan and the design of the intelligent operations were independently developed by Chinese researchers.

The R&D process, along with construction from scratch, took around three years, compared with up to eight years conventionally.

Two berths at the terminal only require nine monitoring staff in the control room to function properly, compared to 60 workers at traditional terminals.

Labor costs have been reduced by 70%, while efficiency has increased by 30%.

Since operations began in May 2017, the port has serviced more than 660 ships, transported around 800,000 shipping containers.

The work efficiency per truck has increased by 55% in a year, while the cost per container has decreased by 48%.

"Our efficiency has increased notably in the past year. When we first opened, our machines could handle 26.9 containers per hour, and the current average is above 33 containers per hour. It has completely surpassed the efficiency of any traditional terminals, marking the first time an automated terminal has surpassed their traditional counterparts in terms of efficiency. On April 11th, we achieved an average efficiency of 42.9 containers per hour, which set the current world record," says Yang.

The terminal has been recognized both domestically and internationally for its quality and innovation.

It won the Highest Efficiency Award of Automated Terminals at the Automation Summit 2018 this past March in London.

The terminal is part of the Port of Qingdao, which is the largest container port in northern China, with the highest number of shipping routes out of all the seaports in the country.

The port services 175 shipping routes, 65 connecting ports in countries along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road under the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative.

Qingdao is the host city of the 2018 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit.

The Port of Qingdao services ten shipping routes to SCO countries and seven routes to countries that are SCO observers or dialogue partners.

Qingdao also serves a crucial role under the Belt and Road Initiative, as the only Chinese city to act both as a sea port and a rail transportation hub. Many railway routes connect Qingdao to other Chinese cities, as well as destinations in central Asia and beyond.

"The Port of Qingdao offers 37 inbound freight train routes, including 25 to designations within Shandong Province, eight to elsewhere in China and four international routes. Outside of Shandong, the trains travel to places including Zhengzhou, Xi'an, Xining, Urumuqi, Yinchuan and Chengdu. International routes travel out of China from port cities including Arshaan and Manzhouli. Currently, we have charted our development path to support the Belt and Road Initiative and boost sea-rail combined transportation. From 2015 to 2017, the Port of Qingdao had ranked No. 1 among all Chinese sea ports in terms of sea-rail combined transport volume. Last year, we transported more than 776,000 containers, and this year, we expect to see more than one million containers," explains Leng Bing, a logistics official with the Port of Qingdao.

The automated terminal at the port is expected to play an important role in achieving that goal.

Yang Jiemin says beyond that, the technologies used at the terminal could greatly impact the future of all automated ports around the world.

"Representatives from many European ports have visited us and found inspiration from our technologies, including those used in vehicle recharging. I believe that in the future, construction of all automatic ports around the world will reference our key technologies at the Port of Qingdao. We have carried out meaningful and valuable exploration and innovation for the entire industry," says Yang.

Yang Jiemin says that the automated terminal had already become profitable during the first quarter this year.

Phase Two of its development, which also includes two berths, has now begun construction and will be completed in two years.

Yang Jiemin says even more advanced technologies will be used in the next step of the terminal's growth.

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