Next level remote operations – the remote crane operator and beyond

Björn Henriksson, Technology Manager, ABB Ports, Sweden

Automation and digitalization continue to drive changes in roles and processes, thereby impacting the entire terminal operation and challenging us to evolve the roles of port workers. This paper takes on that brief by making a case that it is time to take remote operations beyond the remote crane operator. We believe such an initiative will increase safety and productivity at the quay by digitalizing the whole of the ship-to-shore (STS) crane operation.

The STS crane operator’s role has undergone major changes, moving from the crane cabin to the control room
The STS crane operator’s role has undergone major changes, moving from the crane cabin to the control room

How it all started

The story of remote container crane operation started more than two decades ago when the first stacking cranes were automated and remote operation introduced. A lot has happened since then and today almost all stacking cranes ordered come equipped with automation and remote operation. In fact, now that stacking cranes are capable of performing automatic pick-up/landing of containers on road chassis, it is more accurate to consider remote supervision rather than remote operation, since an operator’s input is only needed for handling exceptions.

The last decade has shown that something many thought would hardly be possible has become reality: remote STS crane operation. Already, the total number of remotely operated quay cranes exceeds 100 units and, recently, one more terminal went ‘cabinless’, marking a new era when they acquired more cranes to their existing remotely operated quay crane fleet.

The introduction of automation and remote operation in container terminals has also meant taking the first steps in adopting digitalization to enable new ways of doing things. Combined, automation, remote operation and the tools provided by digitalization are increasing safety and productivity in container terminals by separating humans from big machines and eliminating bottlenecks, as well as combating inefficient manual processes.

Examples of digitalization include gate automation that digitalized gate transactions, and crane OCR which makes the automation and digitalization of container hand-offs possible. In both cases, automation and digitalization enabled a centralized way of handling exceptions remotely from an office building. But more remains to be done to reap the benefits of digitalization at the quay.

Digitalized quay operation

By fully digitalizing the information exchange between remote operator, checker and deckman, i.e. within the team involved in the operation of STS cranes, the whole quay operation can be digitalized.

Data related to a container move, as well as the status of the bay, what is waiting under a crane and the original loading/discharging plan can be made available and visualized to the whole team involved in the operation of the STS cranes simultaneously with ABB’s QuayPro application. The entire team can see the work queues and orders dispatched, and changes in executing them, in real-time. This inspires the evolution of the way quay operations are handled, and reorganizes the roles and responsibilities of the STS team in a more efficient and productive manner. This also means that most of the work related to discharging or loading a vessel can now be done from a centralized remote location.

Traditionally the information exchange within the team relies on verbal communication over radio and information on paper. This way of working is a source of inefficiencies and errors. Any change in discharging or loading can result in loss of time because the team lacks efficient ways for communicating changes in planned work order execution.

When the whole team has access to the same information at all times, the need for verbal communication is significantly reduced.

  • Figure 1. Digitalized quay operation with QuayPro.
  • QuayPro example view. QuayPro can be configured to visualize information according to the terminal’s needs.
  • Example of the loading/discharging plan view in QuayPro. As the work orders are executed, the color of the cells changes to indicate completed and remaining moves to be made.

Checker becomes remote checker

Today checkers are typically stationed at the STS crane on the quay and work with manual inputs. By applying QuayPro in combination with crane OCR, one can significantly evolve the checkers’ job. This means that checkers actually become remote checkers, meaning they will work in the office environment, just like remote crane operators. This improves safety and provides more ergonomic working environment for the checkers, and one checker can even handle more than one crane. The risk of errors is minimized since manual inputs are no longer necessary.

Consequently, the checker’s role can become more versatile. Being located in the office environment and having access to the real-time information e.g. about discharging, the remote checker becomes a valuable support for the crane operator. The checker can, for example, take over the task of solving exceptions related to discharging containers on the vessel. This frees the remote operator from solving issues arising from exceptions and allows him or her to concentrate on the main task – loading or discharging containers in as uninterrupted a manner as is possible.

Next level remote crane operator

The STS crane operator’s role has already gone through major changes over recent years as the crane operator started to exchange the crane cabin for the comfort of the control room.

Even so, further digitalization enables the remote crane operator to have greater capacity to act when things don’t go as planned. Through the QuayPro application the remote operator can see all work queues and orders and can, for instance, bypass a certain cell if the container cannot be discharged to ensure uninterrupted operation. Through QuayPro information showing changes made by the crane operator is also instantly visible to the rest of the team. The remote checker can start solving the issue and the operator continues discharging.

Deckman

When containers are discharged, the deckman typically manages the lashing process and verifies completion. He also gives instructions to and visually aids the crane operator in case a problem is detected or the cargo to be lifted is overheight or is a special cargo.

QuayPro also makes deckman’s work more efficient. With the real-time information presented on his handheld device, the deckman can become proactive in his or her work by seeing well in advance if and when the team on the ground needs to prepare to handle a special cargo.

During loading the deckman can follow the process in real-time. Deviations from the original stowage plan will be fed back to TOS directly from QuayPro, which significantly improves the quality of the outgoing BAPLIE. The deckman’s role can also be expanded to include responsibility for reporting delay codes related to, for instance, lashing, handling of hatch covers, and crane hang/waiting time (e.g. waiting for horizontal transportation). This can be done directly in QuayPro.

It’s all about remote operations

To stay competitive, terminals need to look for ways to improve productivity. The most cost-efficient way to do that is to increase net motion time by implementing remote operations. Remote operations throughout the terminal, now also including the remote checker, will minimize the requirement to transport people to and from cranes. Shift changes and breaks can also be handled smoothly at the desk in the control room. Automation and digitalization are key enablers in making this happen.

Analytics for performance improvement

Visualizing everything the terminal’s numerous systems already know allows changing the way of operating the terminal. In addition, analysis of the data provides valuable insights for process and performance improvements. Analytics can be used for locating bottlenecks in production, finding the root cause for delays and for verifying that work orders have been executed in the correct manner. The crane cycle can also be analyzed to see where performance falls behind the optimum cycle. These insights can be used for training purposes to create an understanding of how decisions taken during operations have an impact on the performance of equipment and the entire terminal.

Being able to see what the systems already knew but couldn’t tell us empowers users when it comes to understanding, changing and improving job roles and operations in ways that make container terminals safer, greener and more productive.

Originally published in Port Technology Magazine, Edition 80, November 2018

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