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Container Terminal Automation

Achieving true terminal automation requires all human resources and operations to be compliant and well-trained with new technologies. Many TOS failures warranted users straying from processes and executives focusing too much on one area.

How is Automation Being Implemented During the Pandemic?

The pandemic has forced a total reformation in how we usually conduct business and automation project implementations have had to develop different methods to accommodate and adapt to these changes.

Going for Terminal Automation or Port Expansion?

The decision to decide whether to opt for terminal automation or port expansion weighs in the pros and cons of each type. However, the most significant attributor lies within executives goals and objectives.



Achieving terminal automation that generates results requires all human resources and operations to be compliant and well-trained with the introduction of new technologies. Inducing autonomous processes, whether for a full or partial automated terminal, will alleviate the mundane workload and naturally develop efficiency for that targeted area. However, focusing and investing too much in a particular aspect of a terminal can create an imbalance that leads executives astray from their initial project objectives. The extent of terminal automation success primarily weighs on its counterparts within the port. All entities like TOS planners, equipment operators, IT staff, etc., must work collectively and familiarize themselves with the newly implemented system and operational structure changes to ensure the automation integrated reaches its full potential. Only then can employee performance align with operational and financial goals.

Many failures witnessed in automation warranted non-real-time communication in equipment as one of the root causes. Terminal operators misunderstand that third-party software as the interface connecting the TOS and equipment creates an unnecessary additional layer, hindering direct real-time communication. Other than non-real-time TOS, a lack of structure and visibility reinforced in data can also relay poor data quality. Poorly fortified standards, formats, and data structure lead to costly and risky outcomes that prevent a common data language or reliable data analytics and complicates interfacing with various equipment and systems. The risk of automation failures increases with customization at high costs contributing to siloed operations and information fragmentation. Shortage of capabilities also pertains to automation failures, resulting in risky decisions due to a lack of knowledge of the entire scope of the system and how it interacts within its environment. Therefore, there are a few things that operators must acknowledge to acquire the true benefits of automation.

Once terminal executives form a well-rounded strategy that averts to the risks discussed above, they can dive into the various types of technological products that elevate results even further. Automated Container Handling Equipment (CHE) combined with a Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) can achieve ultimate precision when executing Work Instructions (WIs). As a result of automated CHEs with a DGPS attached, it can optimize equipment routing and dispatch of WIs, leading to efficient turnover time of container ships. These technological investments propel even further abreast the installation of 5G networks with the correct IT system infrastructure as terminals can achieve a wider stride towards their digitalization transformation journey. 5G enables rapid information flow, improving Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities, whether that be in planning or executing. Furthermore, AI and automation capabilities combined on a cloud platform take TOS environments to new heights, offering accessibility, agility, and dynamic smart decision-making – crucial for this new port and terminal landscape battling ongoing uncertainty.

When executives invest too much in a particular area and neglect others, an imbalance can lead the terminal astray from their goals and prospects. For instance, if ports roll out more automated CHEs to handle more container throughput if enhancements or retrofitting for IT hardware and software remain unattended, results can reflect many shortcomings. Think of the terminal as an ecosystem involving numerous entities and operations working together to create a harmonious environment. Suppose one area changes and the rest of operations and process fail to update with it. In that case, the imbalance can create hotspots as it cannot handle the sudden spike or dip, rippling into other nodes of planning and operation, affecting terminal performance. 

Most importantly, for any technology enhancement or innovation introduction within a terminal to succeed, drills down to its employee attitudes and behaviors. Technological acceptance improves with training and overtime. For any project to achieve its intended targets, a set of rules and regulation should establish. Staff can then better understand the standards they must follow from planning, process, and documentation levels. An encouraging learning approach to inform of the new changes in business or any level of the organization can encourage members to adhere to the set protocols and close both the knowledge and unacceptance gap. Any advancements instituted cannot invoke the results expected unless there is employee compliance.




Automation, although conveyed in different forms, such as either a TOS module, automated CHEs and gates, or robotics, all function to induce efficiency within operations and processes. The deployment of these automation projects usually requires some form of physical presence for installation and configuration. However, how have terminal operators forced to accelerate their digitalization journey, navigate in a world living with an ongoing pandemic?

The global pandemic has served as a steppingstone for ports and terminals worldwide as they learn resilience. An increasing amount of industry stakeholders have developed objectives that value dynamic navigating and pivoting due to the events that have transformed the container handling and maritime industry. As a result, operating and processes have evolved and adopted new conventions to handle unanticipated circumstances better.

Automation on a cloud TOS has transcended traditional TOS deployments as all stages of the project timeline can be conducted online. TOPS Expert Cloud running with its Automation module simultaneously, can train labor forces via E-learning or over a collaboration platform upon request, a significant steppingstone that has helped both terminals and TOS providers cope with the global crisis. E-Learning breaks down into multiple modules to facilitate more digestible content and replay as required, allowing employees to learn at their own pace.

Any issues or mishaps encountered while using the system can resolve via remote support. RBS has multiple offices worldwide to provide on-demand support, going beyond conventional support services that require staff to be on-premises. Travelling is a continual concern, and therefore, leveraging the accessibility benefit of the cloud and its platform to launch enhancements or new modules can complete on the fly. Although automation requires upfront capital, the outcomes of efficiency in higher container turnover rates and higher savings in the future outweigh the initial costs and offer a viable alternative to innovate.




There seems to be an upward trend of investing in automation and undergoing port expansion. While port automation mainly aims to invoke operational efficiency through higher container turnover, port expansion increases container handling capacity. Although there are many benefits to both types, the indicator that shifts the decision scale solely lies with the terminal objectives.

Terminal operators who realize the actual benefits of automation seek beyond the initial capital required to invest in the implementation and understand it creates substantial value in the long term. Unions also attribute to automation resistance, fearing that the skill gap between mastering these new changes in IT and processes will cause unemployment. However, that is not the case since there are plenty of learning tools and support services offered by TOS vendors and product providers to facilitate the transition, as these systems still need staff to operate them. Therefore, a large portion of terminal operating executives and managers draw on these misconceptions to favor more equipment as opposed to intelligent IT software. Following these sentiments can unknowingly set ports and terminals even further from gaining the competitive edge and reaching their full potential power when they choose automation as their first step towards digitalization. 

Manual processes still prevalent in ports and terminals confront communication exchange that is most likely inefficient and can infer a lack of visibility over operations misconstruing results. Reduced transparency in terminal data is a repercussion that stems from the absence of automation. When data recorded for a container is loaded, discharged, stored, and moved, it will not be entirely accurate or standardized if exercised manually. As a result, automation is not solely limited to operational efficiency, but rather it also establishes a refined structure in processing information and data. Enforcing protocol automatically within data exchange and processes adhere to standards and maintain reliability, which is vital for decision-making at all planning points down to execution. Port executives who share this common perception of automation value and its prospective future will adopt more automation in the form of either equipment, devices, or IT software modules.

Conversely, many ports and terminals accelerated their expansion plans mid-pandemic to increase container handling capacity. Like automation, port development is financially intensive, which may deter executives. However, these plans can generate plenty of opportunities for the terminal, such as mega-vessel berth constructions now accepting larger vessels to increase container movement or even expanding into rail operations as a post-pandemic strategy honing on localized trade and intermodal activity. Projects like these take time and aggregate in substantial costs, but it is worthwhile if the expansion plans align with the vision and objectives of the terminal.

Port expansion projects raced to keep pace with changing demands of consumerism, sustaining business activity. Volatile container movement that resulted from blanked sailings then evolved into clogged warehouses, and congested ports as containers finally reached their port of discharge. Some terminals had even had to compromise for the sudden influx of containers that transformed their shipyard as an interim yard. Dealing with such spikes in deep troughs in demand can create pressures on equipment, employees, and limited TOS system infrastructures that cannot accommodate the changing container volumes. As a result, port operators have even gaged the support of their local authorities to widen their space or even delve into rail operations, creating more job opportunities. Therefore, investing in port construction depends on the goals and objectives that shape their strategy.

Some veer toward port expansion to improve economic development within their region, creating more employment opportunities. While some advance in automation capabilities strengthen standardization and operational efficiency to generate business continuity. These strategies encompass divergent goals and objectives, which reveal whether to employ either terminal automation or port expansion.


Our global RBS team from Australia, EMEA, Indonesia, and Vietnam will be attending the TOC Global Showcase so don’t forget to stop by our virtual booth:

  • Ask all your terminal-specific questions
  • Watch Norbert Klettner, RBS EMEA Director, delve into some insights about TIC 4.0. 
  • Learn where the industry is headed and how to keep ahead of the competition
  • Discuss everything you have in mind with our panel of experts

 We hope to connect with you!