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Automation was the top port trend pre-pandemic – is it still?

Automation expected to headline this year's tech trends again, but due to the onslaught of changes, has the technology popularity stretched into 2020? Take a look into how a chain of changes impacted the industry.​

Automation Misconceptions

Automation has associated with many misconceptions over the years, which prevent terminal operators from realizing their true potential. Discover the main deterrents and its counterarguments to understand how automation actually works.

SmartTrack to facilitate terminal health

Given the series of climate change events happening concurrently with the global economic crisis, environmental and operational goals have united as an imperative for port operators. SmartTrack is RBS' latest tech breakthrough adhering to these values.



Automation was a hot subject headlining 2019 and its level of interest predicted to rise further in 2020, but due to the global chaos that has yet to cease to end, many things have changed. Did automation slip, or is it still considered a top tech trend in the industry?

The catastrophic events worldwide compromising the health of individuals concurrent with natural disasters have pushed port executives and government bodies to technology as not only a means of survival but also to drive better change for security, safety, and the environment. The technological landscape in the container handling industry has faced massive reform as innovative technologies are more readily accepted now than ever before. As a result, a manifold of new products has launched in the market and is arguably as popular as automation. Therefore, automation interest is still widely prevalent but is no longer alone at the forefront of people’s interests since terminal efficiency and productivity are not the only main objectives.

Although going full automation has a manifold of benefits, it is a hefty initial investment that remains the most significant deterrent, especially in this current state of the world where being resourceful is critical. Instead, there has been incremental automation, particularly in acquiring automated equipment to improve their existing infrastructure capabilities. This area of automation choice emerges from goals to streamline operations as it transforms inefficient tasks. Automation as an environmental and safety-conscious approach is one of the few alternatives which aims to maximize equipment use, reduce container re-handling, and ultimately drive fewer emissions from optimized operations.

Container throughput and terminal activity across the globe are gradually picking back up, reflecting port operators’ efforts of learning to leverage better control over the fluctuating market and conditions. The economic crisis alleviated the impact on ports that already had automation and digitalized practices established compared to those with non-digitized data and operations heavily dependent on manual labor. Manual processes and operations proved to be an incredible challenge as it prevented the ability to respond dynamically to blanked sailings or maintain social distancing to protect employee health. Now, there is a profound focus on combining new technologies and products to achieve operational, performative, and environmental targets.



Automation has associated with many misconceptions over the years, which prevent port and terminal operators from realizing their full potential. The deterrents derive from a variety of myths:

  1. Automation will steal my job

One of the most common questions regarding automation is, “am I going to lose my job?” The answer is no. When processes, operations, and equipment are automated, it streamlines a specific task which was probably time-consuming to complete. By automating a particular task, it will generate higher task turnover, achieving increased efficiency, which will create more opportunities for other areas of the business. Therefore, automation will draw more focus on reskilling employees and re-training to understand new infrastructures. As a result, automation compliant terminals will naturally experience a change in business orientation and may foster even more job opportunities in other fields of terminal operations.

  1. I do not have any automated Container Handling Equipment (CHEs), so automation is not the investment for me.

Automation is not limited to just equipment but can also be integrated into the software to transform manual port operations, scheduling, communicating, etc. Introducing automation into system processes can induce efficacy as it facilitates data transmission consistency regardless of being at any node of the terminal network. Digitalizing then automating tasks critical to a port will drive agility in leveraging better control over its operations. Work instructions issued at planning stages may be subjected to errors and generate container re-handles, but automation capabilities will grant operational visibility in areas crucial to achieving productivity. Automation, therefore, has a variety of applications other than just equipment and can also provide many benefits which sustain information and operational flow.

  1. Automation will do more harm than good.

Viewing the initial infrastructure costs as attribution to your latter results is critical to achieving its long-term benefits and experience complete automation advantages. Although automation may not produce immediate tangible results, it will surely improve productivity and performance rates only if the terminal operator’s employ the correct automation strategy. Many automation failures occur due to the lack of real-time information flow from using too many interfaces (e.g. third-party software), creating unnecessary layers that block data and work instructions from maintaining its real-time state. As a result, congestion and redundant WIs, and even possible system hangs are the output of the automation project. If automation executes correctly, it will offer a high visibility environment sustaining connections in real-time and generate results – all the critical factors to secure a competitive edge.

Despite the existing barriers to adopt automation capabilities, there has been incredible efforts of organizations creating communities which help industry participants learn of new technologies to adopt and which do not provide benefit, standards of practices to consider, as well as learning better strategies to curate a better interconnected global supply chain.



Environmental and operational imperatives have somewhat united as the result of climate change events happening concurrently with the global economic crisis. These circumstances have pushed port authorities to evaluate their existing business practices and seek innovative technologies which support both environmental and business sustainability.

A shift in adopting corporate social responsibility to reduce emissions have emerged alongside the objectives to optimize whenever and wherever. Recognizing these crucial responsibilities, RBS developed SmartTrack this year as a powerful feature integrated into TOPX TOS to pave a new path for terminals in resolving areas of inefficiency and heighten operational visibility in the face of fluctuating consumer demand.

SmartTrack is an incredible tool factoring time, distance, and speed to determine the shortest route to move a container from one location to another. However, the function solves the bigger picture. Straddle carriers, trailers, and reach stackers are continually moving around the yard and are typically given the simple work instructions to transport a container from one block to another.

Without SmartTrack, there are boundless route possibilities to reach their assigned destination, and therefore, the equipment travels more than necessary. When the resources exhausted are placed into retrospect, the amount of equipment active in a terminal can total to thousands, and the amount of fuel required multiplied by the days tells that the terminal is suffering dearly annually.

Aside from the direct internal impacts, reducing one’s carbon footprint is a directive that RBS products seek to facilitate. It is equally important to maximize efficient use of existing infrastructure as it is to adopt an environmental responsibility. Reinforcing these values, SmartTrack is critical for a terminal concerned with costs factors, working towards a green terminal, reducing fuel, and increasing overall efficiency. It is the solution for terminals as it:  

  1. Increases efficiency – Optimum route for equipment is executed as containers are moved within the shortest distance, and provided precise directions to reach the destination, achieving maximum productivity of all CHEs.
  2. Cost-efficient – SmartTrack protects CHEs against wear and tear, maintaining their value, and reducing maintenance and repair costs.
  3. Optimum Performance – SmartTrack maps the best and shortest path, tracking all CHE moves and time taken to complete a path, and therefore, achieves maximum traceability to pinpoint when and where a problem can occur.
  4. Timesaving – Leeway for error or miscalculation mitigates since route incorporates every factor from time, speed to distance.
  5. Environmentally Sustainable – Massive savings from lessened fuel consumption due to optimum route calculation, which also lowers carbon emissions. With SmartTrack, it is a huge step towards greener terminals.
  6. Heightens Safety – SmartTrack tracks movement in real-time, alerting the CHE operator counteractive directions needed to get back on the correct path. Eliminates all guessing which inherently decreases the number of potential accidents from occurring.
  7. Congestion Control – Determines and forecasts exact areas experiencing bottlenecks which assists in yard and resource planning.

“Congestion generates huge financial and environmental losses every year and I fear that terminals are missing the chance to leverage the results they deserve,” says Harry, CEO of RBS. 

Are you seeing all the above?