ABB automation proves transformative at Hamburg’s largest container terminal

ABB automation proves transformative at Hamburg’s largest container terminal

HHLA Container Terminal Burchardkai (CTB) is Hamburg’s largest and oldest container terminal. However, the facility where the leading German port’s container era began, is largely unrecognizable from how it looked a decade ago, after a transformation that has hugely increased capacity close to the city of Hamburg.

Terminal operator Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG (HHLA) has an enviable reputation for yard handling efficiency, which was historically based on the performance of its highly mobile and manually operated straddle carriers. Over the past years, the CTB terminal has been undergoing significant redesign and redevelopment to handle larger ships, increase unloading speed, and address yard capacity limitations. This overhaul also aimed to alleviate concerns about emissions from port equipment.

In a profound change in operating strategy, HHLA began a long and carefully phased switch from straddle carriers to rail mounted, all-electric stacking cranes – a transition which is only now approaching completion. As part of this process, the terminal operator collaborated closely with ABB to implement substantial automation, overcoming constraints, and simultaneously improving safety while reducing the environmental impact of yard operations.

“When the large vessels arrive, we handle around 8,000 containers, which compares to half of the number 10 years ago. This means that we must unload a lot of containers in a very short time and store them until they are transported out of the terminal”, says Thomas Elssner, Project Engineer, HHLA. “With automatic stacking cranes we can stack higher, and we gain more flexibility on capacity”.

Thomas Elssner, Project Engineer, HHLA: “We get higher productivity, we get reliable cranes, and we reduce the cost of operating the system”
Thomas Elssner, Project Engineer, HHLA: “We get higher productivity, we get reliable cranes, and we reduce the cost of operating the system”
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Ranged across 19 container blocks, 57 stacking cranes support yard operations at CTB today, all of which feature automation technology from ABB. Three more container blocks are due to enter operation in the months ahead, served by nine additional cranes. The transformation in yard capacity has been significant, with each yard block now making up 10 containers in width with stacks reaching up to 6 containers high, greatly surpassing the capabilities of the previous straddle carrier operation.

Replacing most of the diesel-powered straddle carriers with electrical stacking cranes has made huge progress in the direction of decarbonization in the Port of Hamburg, especially given the fact that CTB draws on electricity from renewable energy sources to power the stacking cranes.

Phased efficiency gains
A container terminal crucial to northern Germany’s supply chain could not simply switch operations overnight. The ABB system has been implemented step by step, with civil works taking place in phases and systems introduced block by block, while terminal operations continued without disruption.

“As this is not a greenfield terminal, the implementation of new technology is more complicated,” says Vanessa Schmidt, Project Coordinator, HHLA. “While making this transformation we kept operations up and running, but at the same time we needed room to test the new solutions. It meant that the operational view and the future development view had to be aligned.”

Vanessa Schmidt, Project Coordinator, HHLA: “While making this transformation we kept operations up and running”
Vanessa Schmidt, Project Coordinator, HHLA: “While making this transformation we kept operations up and running”
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“When we come across a problem or a challenge, we reach out to ABB to discuss options. It’s good that we always ultimately have the same aim - we want to get the cranes working together optimally. This makes working with ABB really pleasant, and we learn a lot of things from the experience they have from so many other cranes around the world,” adds Vanessa Schmidt.

Unique yard solution
Collaborating closely, HHLA and ABB have developed a unique concept to optimize productivity. This concept capitalizes on the terminal's layout by organizing yard stacks into very long blocks.

“We have three cranes working at the same time in one block,” explains Vanessa Schmidt. “One of them is bigger so that it can bypass the two smaller cranes, meaning that they can interact at the waterside as well as on the landside at the same time. We developed this concept together with ABB to get the most productive solution. ABB then optimized the interaction of the cranes to deliver the solution we use today”.

  • Three cranes work at the same time in one block to optimize productivity and capitalize on the terminal’s layout with yard stacks in long blocks.
  • Three cranes work at the same time in one block to optimize productivity and capitalize on the terminal’s layout with yard stacks in long blocks.

The setup also increases productivity as crane operations can be optimized on a case-by-case basis as required – for example, so that one side of the block is worked on more intensively.

“We get higher productivity, we get reliable cranes, and we reduce the cost of operating the system,” Thomas Elssner confirms.

When the crane needs assistance, for example, with the handling of external trucks, job orders are ‘pushed’ to a remote operator before reaching the holding position. “Therefore, the crane normally doesn't have to stop and wait for the remote operator, and we have found that productivity is really good,” says Vanessa Schmidt. In addition to implementing a comprehensive training program, HHLA took a step-by-step approach to the setup, building trust in a new way of working and recognizing the “new profession” of remote crane operation, she adds.

Manually operated straddle carriers are still used to transport containers between the waterside and the storage area, and Thomas Elssner also stresses that special attention was paid to creating a safe transfer area to and from the yard cranes. “We increased safety, as nobody is working in the block anymore, so that the risk of accidents is reduced. That is truly one of the main benefits of this system.”

Continuous development
At CTB, the ABB system has recently been updated, taking the first steps towards automated truck handling in the landside transfer area for unloading trucks, which delivers even better productivity.

A collaborative initiative between HHLA and ABB, extending until the end of 2025, further seeks to enhance efficiencies in crane utilization, maintenance, and servicing. The partners aim to achieve this by leveraging HHLA's extensive experience with ASC operations and ABB's expertise in delivering automation solutions for over 1,000 ACSs worldwide.

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