| Written by Paul Hebrard

Container terminals must continually strive to optimise resource use while reducing costs. Automation is becoming essential for existing brownfield Terminals, although it presents particular challenges, especially during implementation, where operational throughput must be maintained and the impact on current operations should be minimised. At the same time, Terminals must keep an eye on developments in the labour market, changes in Technology standards, and fulfilment of environmental protection requirements.
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The Importance of Automation Projects in Existing Container Terminals

There are over 800 container Terminals in the world, of which 68 were fully or partially automated in 2022 (1).

The introduction of fully automated container handling at newly built terminals has demonstrated significant benefits in terms of efficiency, safety and sustainability. Operators of brownfield terminals are increasingly showing interest in retrofitting their terminals (e.g. PDS automation) and thus taking advantage of automation opportunities themselves.

The space available at a brownfield port can be limited, although the increase in ship sizes and, therefore, the number of containers handled are forcing terminal operators to invest in longer and deeper berths and larger cranes. Investing in automation is becoming more viable to be able to cope with the increase in containers.

All automation projects share the need for modularity and scalability, as well as adaptation to the ports' harsh environments and their respective structural and climatic conditions.


Challenges in Automating Brownfield Container Terminals

An Ageing Fleet

The data that can be obtained from ageing container handling equipment (CHE) may be limited, which affects the scope of available reporting and subsequent automation opportunities.

To address this, the use of third-party sensors should be considered to enable the collection of data (e.g. spreader height, container weight, fuel levels) that may not be readily available in older equipment. In contrast, newer vehicles may have GPS and PLC capabilities that can be used without the need to purchase new hardware.

Legacy Infrastructure Compatibility

The existing communications backhaul (i.e. the terminal operator's network) may not support the latest security protocols or, in some cases, only support protocols that are now considered insecure. However, a stable, well-functioning communications backhaul is critical to the success of an automation project.

In addition, when implementing an automation solution, any deficiencies in network performance, especially latency, become visible.

Data Integration and Interoperability

Older systems may not be able to adapt to modern interface standards. In such cases, additional costs may arise, either by re-engaging with original vendors or by ensuring that automation solutions can be adapted to older interfaces.

Data flow needs to be properly considered and well-planned at the beginning of the project. Particular attention must be paid to the interface protocols and languages ​​used in legacy systems, as these may be deprecated or no longer considered secure.

The effort required for development must be defined appropriately, as underestimating the amount of work required can lead to delays in implementation.

Operational Disruptions

For brownfield terminals, a gradual transition to automated operation is recommended, incorporating the different areas of the terminal step by step to avoid loss of capacity.

This is a key critical factor that must be considered during project planning and implementation. Any unplanned disruptions cause lower productivity, which can result in penalties and lost business.

Access to the required infrastructure and assets should be planned appropriately with the operations team to minimise disruptions and ensure the project schedule can be met.

Staff Training and Change Management

The content of the training should be tailored to the employee's function. When creating training plans, it must be considered that terminal operations may run 24/7, so training dates must be adjusted to the shift schedule.

The training must ensure that all employees understand the goals of the automation project and are well acquainted with their roles.

Cybersecurity Risks

All IT-based solutions carry a risk of cybercrime. Long-operating systems are often outdated and must be examined for compliance with current standards, updating if necessary.

When integrating third-party systems, it is crucial to ensure that they meet current cybersecurity requirements and that the in-house security protocols are still guaranteed.

Regulatory Compliance

To avoid legal penalties, business interruption and reputational damage, it is crucial to ensure that all relevant legal and regulatory requirements are met. This applies, for example, to compliance with data protection laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe or the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in the United States.

Safety regulations to protect employees, such as the OSHA standards in the USA or similar occupational safety regulations worldwide, must be adhered to and form part of the review process when analysing new automation opportunities. 

Finally, all devices and systems used must be certified and tested to meet prevailing safety standards.

Stakeholder Collaboration

The challenges of collaborating with internal and external stakeholders arise from differing interests, resistance to change, communication barriers and logistical complexities.

Employees may fear loss of employment or significant changes in their roles. Unions' concerns centre on their members' job security and working conditions. Management can also react cautiously if representatives are critical of changes due to perceived risks or a lack of familiarity with new technologies. It is best to engage early and often to ensure smooth transitions.



Best Practices for Automation Projects

Successfully implementing automation into existing container terminal operations requires IT managers to plan carefully, collaborate with relevant departments, and be proactive. Here is a guide to managing the complexity of such projects:

Comprehensive Needs Assessment

The first step is to assess the Terminals operations to identify weaknesses, inefficiencies, and areas suitable for automation. Collaboration with stakeholders from all departments is vital to gather insights and prioritise.

Technology Selection

The terminal's operational and scalability requirements, including long-term strategic goals, are at the top of the list. Evaluate vendors based on their track record, system compatibility, support services, and flexibility to customise solutions.

Phased Implementation Approach

Breaking the project into manageable phases can minimise disruption to current operations. Prioritise critical areas and implement solutions in stages, allowing for testing, feedback, and adjustments along the way.

Integration with Existing Systems

New automation systems must be seamlessly integrated into existing infrastructures, software applications, and data sources. Investments in robust solutions for data exchange and interoperability between systems pay off.

Staff Training and Change Management

Comprehensive training programs, documentation and ongoing support, facilitate the transition and build staff confidence. Teaching terminal staff the skills and knowledge they need to operate, maintain and troubleshoot automated systems effectively must begin early.

Real-time Monitoring and Analytics

Monitoring tools and analytics platforms allow key performance indicators (KPIs) to be tracked and trends identified. This will enable continuous monitoring of system performance improvements.

Risk Mitigation Strategies

To anticipate potential disruptions such as system failures or unexpected operational challenges, contingency plans and risk mitigation strategies are needed. It is advisable to set up redundancy measures, test and backup systems and disaster recovery protocols to ensure business continuity.

Collaboration and Communication

Good collaboration and open communication between cross-functional teams, technology partners, and stakeholders throughout the implementation process are key factors in the project's success. Regular meetings, progress updates, and feedback sessions can help address concerns, align expectations, and maintain momentum.

Regulatory Compliance and Security

It is crucial to ensure that automated systems comply with relevant regulatory standards, security protocols and data protection regulations. In particular cybersecurity measures, including encryption, access controls and regular audits to protect sensitive data and safeguard against cyber threats must be considered.

Collaboration Between Stakeholders

Terminal automation should be treated as an ongoing process rather than a one-time project. To this end, a culture of continuous improvement, innovation, and feedback loops should be created in which the lessons learned from implementation experiences can be used to refine processes, improve performance, and drive further efficiency improvements.

By following these best practices and adopting a holistic approach to implementing automation, IT managers can manage the complexity of such a project. Successfully executing automation projects increases operational performance and positions the terminal for long-term success in an increasingly digital and competitive environment.


Operational Interruptions During Automation Projects

Planning the interruptions required by integrating new software and installing hardware on infrastructure and terminal vehicles plays a critical role.

The automation of a container terminal is a complex process that requires careful planning and execution. One of the most challenging aspects is managing the interruptions caused by rolling out new software and hardware. These interruptions impact numerous operational processes and require the understanding and participation of various departments to ensure a smooth transition and minimise disruption to business continuity.

Automation processes not only bring significant changes in technologies, but also in workflows and processes. It is essential to consider the full scope of these changes and plan accordingly. This includes a precise understanding of the points at which operations must be stopped or changed and the preparation of those involved. Continuous, precise communication with the ability to react quickly to unexpected events is essential.


Implementing Software Changes

Software implementation for automation projects in container terminals can often be performed in parallel with ongoing operations to minimise disruption. However, a "hard" transition point is inevitable when the new automated systems are fully integrated and put into operation.

To be as prepared for the hard transition point, integration testing of the new software with existing systems, such as the Terminal Operating System (TOS), is essential to identify and resolve compatibility issues prior to the transition. Simulations and test runs to validate performance under different operating scenarios are proven preparation methods.

It must also be ensured that relevant data is safely transferred to the new system; this is where data validation checks come into play to ensure data integrity and consistency.

If the new software replaces areas of the existing software, backup systems should be set up that can be used in the event of major problems. Rollback procedures must be developed and documented for this purpose. If possible, the software can also be implemented in phases, starting with less critical areas before completely switching to the new setup.

Employees should start training as early as possible to get a good understanding of the software before go-live. It is crucial to work out a training plan with the software provider that enables the terminal team to master the system from day one of the changeover.

Introducing new hardware

Installing hardware such as sensors, transponders, and readers on vehicles and infrastructure requires temporarily shutting down certain areas or equipment to ensure safety, minimise disruption, and maintain operational integrity.

  • Container Handling Operations: Retrofitting existing equipment with automation technology, such as sensors and control systems, may require a temporary shutdown of operations. Deploying new automated infrastructure may disrupt regular operations while the equipment is installed and integrated. It is advisable to use scheduled vehicle maintenance appointments to install hardware simultaneously. These time windows must be agreed upon with required parties, including hardware suppliers, service providers, and the company's own teams. Possible pre-configuration of the hardware should already be completed before the start of the maintenance window to reduce the installation time on site.
  • Gate Operations: Installing OCR cameras and associated systems at the terminal gates may require a temporary shutdown of gate operations or lanes to set up and calibrate equipment.
  • Test operation: Once the hardware is installed, various tests, equipment calibration, and fine-tuning of the system must be carried out, which will also take place outside of ongoing operations. The potential for data accuracy issues and temporary safety concerns during this time must be addressed with appropriate protocols to ensure the safety of personnel and equipment during the testing period. It is recommended that new systems be tested first in non-critical areas or with a limited number of vehicles and that tests be scheduled during off-peak periods.
  • Operator training: Operators and maintenance personnel need comprehensive training on the new solutions. They need to be aware of the test procedures used and have the necessary knowledge for operational use. Well-trained staff enables successful testing, can quickly identify problems in operation, and, if possible, solve minor issues themselves.




Effective Communication With External Stakeholders

If a container terminal switches to automated solutions during ongoing terminal operations, not only the employees but also stakeholders, such as shippers, freight forwarders, or possibly companies based in the port area, must be informed.

In the beginning, there is stakeholder mapping, in which all stakeholders and their interests and concerns, as well as the possible effects of the project on them, are identified. To address the latter effectively, it is advisable to carry out an impact assessment and draw up remedial plans for problems. The scope and frequency of the communication strategy must be adapted to the specific needs of each group.

At the same time, it is vital to designate a dedicated contact person for the stakeholders and communicate their contact channels to them. This person is responsible for managing requests and providing information and updates.

Communication that is as transparent as possible is essential: What are the project goals and schedules, and what effects on daily processes can be expected? Imponderables should also be addressed—not everything always goes like clockwork. If you know about possible disruptions early on, you can think of alternative solutions in the event of interruptions or take delays into account for specific periods.

Severely affected stakeholders should be included in the project from the beginning. Such collaborative planning can be invaluable in identifying potential problems and developing effective solutions. Involving stakeholders and taking them seriously as partners makes a decisive contribution to building trust.



Introducing automation in container terminals offers many benefits in terms of efficiency. However, retrofitting brownfield terminals comes with many challenges, such as outdated equipment and infrastructure.

Terminals can successfully overcome these hurdles by implementing best practices in data integration, staff training, cybersecurity, and regulatory compliance. Above all, collaboration and open communication with all internal and external stakeholders are central to the success of automation projects.

By following these strategies and taking a step-by-step implementation approach, ports can realise the full potential of automation and thus increase their efficiency and sustainability for the future.

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(1) https://porteconomicsmanagement.org/pemp/contents/part3/terminal-automation/fully-semi- automated-container-terminals-total-hectares/#:~:text=An%20inventory%20of%20terminal%20automation,automated%20as%20of%20mid%2D2022.




Paul Hebrard, VP Sales Marine & Ports

Paul Hebrard is a seasoned professional with 20 years of experience in the Container Terminal Industry, beginning his journey with the IT team at P&O Ports Melbourne. His career has centered on process automation solutions support, implementation, and business development. With a focus on improvements at existing terminals, Paul has an aptitude to bring together vendors and collaborators to solve complex issues affecting Terminals globally. He holds a Bachelor of Computer Science, a Master of Science in Network Systems, and an Executive Master of Business Administration.