Colombo's plans to become the top transshipment hub in the Indian Ocean will soon come true with the construction of two large and highly automated terminals in Sri Lanka, serving East-West and regional container trades.
In 2022, transshipment volumes accounted for over 80 percent of the 6.86 million TEUs handled by Port of Colombo, earning the no.23 spot in world container port rankings. Despite this success, the port faces challenges from regional developments, particularly in India, which could impact its ambitions due to operating at full capacity
To address this, two new container terminals are under development in close succession. These terminals underscore the crucial role of ports in Sri Lanka's economy, and their planned automated systems reinforce Colombo's claim as the high efficiency cargo hub, well-positioned to meet the transshipment needs of the Indian subcontinent region. With a deep draft of 20 meters to accommodate the largest container ships, the goal is to attract around 250 ships crossing the Indian Ocean daily, increasing the capacity to 24 million TEUs by 2040.
Colombo’s new East Container Terminal (ECT), developed by Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), will expand port capacity to around 14 million TEU. When up and running by the second quarter of 2024, first phase developments will release around 1.8 million TEU of capacity, rising to 3.6 million TEU in 2025.
Larger still is the new West Container Terminal (WCT) where phase 1 is developed by Colombo West International Terminal – a joint venture between India’s Adani International Port Holdings (Subsidiary of Adani Ports & Special Economic Zone Limited) (51 percent), Sri Lanka’s John Keells Holdings (34 percent) and Sri Lanka Port Authority (15 percent). Conceived to add a further 3.2 million TEUs of capacity, its first phase will also be up and running along 600 meters of quay by early 2025. Colombo’s importance to international trade is signified by $553 million of funding for WCT-1 works from the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) – its largest investment ever in an infrastructure project in Asia.
At the Eastern Container Terminal, SLPA has contracted ABB to provide systems for 40 fully automated end-loading stacking cranes. Here, terminal operations feature straddle carriers which transfer containers between the quay crane and intermediary transfer zone for pick up by the yard crane, in what ABB describes as ‘perpendicular automation’.
Meanwhile, Colombo West International Terminal has also selected ABB technology for WCT-1 – in this case for 18 automated stacking cranes and for eight ship-to-shore cranes with remote operation. Here, box transfers to/from the shore crane will use a terminal tractor-chassis combination, with loads pulling up alongside a cantilever yard crane for stacking, in a ‘parallel automation’ solution.
Automated and rail-mounted electrical stacking cranes were chosen for their energy and space efficiency, while crane automation and remote shore-side crane operations also offer safety gains. Currently more than 1,000 stacking cranes equipped with automation from ABB lift and stack containers in more than 30 terminals worldwide – in end-loaded and cantilever arrangements – interfacing with multiple terminal operating systems.
Jampala Raghuram, Regional Manager Sales, ABB Ports, has developed expertise in container terminal systems over the course of a 30-year career. He explains that ABB’s experience has been central to satisfying the the distinct approaches adopted by Colombo’s two new terminals whose operating preferences amount to more than a choice based on container terminal logistics theory. ABB was involved at the earliest stages of both terminal developments, adds Raghuram.
“Some people believe specific container terminal designs are determined solely by the type of traffic handled, and a port’s location has a bearing on that, but here we have two facilities building side by side for similar reasons and making different choices,” said Raghuram. “Their different size is a factor in their operational choices, but so is the experience of key staff running the terminal.”
For ECT, SLPA’s choice of the straddle transfer solution aligns with experience held by key members of its terminal management staff of efficient port performance in South Korea – where ABB automation systems are also in operation. At WCT- 1, CWIT drew on its experience of ABB solutions in India when choosing to commit to its ‘parallel automation’ solution, as required by the chassis-stacking crane configuration favored.
When two nearby terminals choose ABB for crane automation, sensor systems, and drives but have different operating principles, it's not just a coincidence. According to Raghuram, delivering systems for these distinct operating scenarios involves more than just adjusting the position of collision devices.
“While the terminal automation system will not be different as such, we must customize the solutions because interfaces between port systems and message flows are different. Furthermore, for CWIT, we also have responsibility for the semi-automation of the shoreside cranes, which adds a further dimension to the way systems interface. You cannot simply drop in the program,” he says.
Having ABB's overarching automation systems at the terminal level can also be advantageous for another reason: despite being under different ownership, the two terminals may seek to exchange containers on a tactical basis to meet the transshipment needs of customers.
“Today, container operations at Colombo are acknowledged as the most efficient in the region,” says Raghuram. “The fact that East Container Terminal and CWIT will be the island’s first facilities to feature automated cranes indicates that state-of-the-art handling technology is seen as critical to sustaining that reputation into the future.”