| Written by Constance Stickler
Welcome to the dynamic world of international trade, where the journey of a container through a bustling terminal is like a captivating dance of efficiency and coordination. Join us on the adventure of a blue 20-foot container as it makes its way onto a vessel and manoeuvres through the intricate web of container handling equipment (CHE), storage yards, and external trucks.
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Our story begins with the rhythmic hum of a giant cargo ship as it moves elegantly past the skyward cranes on the quay to its landing site. As the vessel docks at the lively container terminal, excitement fills the air. Deep within the vessel's bowels, our container, packed with goods from distant shores, sits patiently, ready for its next adventure - container handling is now on.
When the ship is securely moored, and all the necessary preparations have been made, the terminal's cranes swing into action, their colossal arms gracefully plucking containers from the ship's deck. Our container is hoisted into the air, a mere speck against the vast expanse of the terminal.
The container is greeted by cutting-edge technology, the digital eyes of Optical Character Recognition (OCR): Cameras strategically placed on the crane welcome the container by recording its "name", i.e. its code, typically a combination of letters and numbers. This technology plays a crucial role in automating the identification and tracking process by passing the collected data directly and in real-time to the Terminal Operating System (TOS).
But OCR doesn't stop at just the container number; it also records the ISO code, defining the type and specifications of the container and its size. The latter information ensures compatibility with the handling equipment and storage facilities. Safety is paramount in the shipping industry, and OCR technology is equipped to recognise hazardous material labels affixed to containers. This ensures these containers get the handling they need, taking all the proper precautions to keep things smooth and lower any risks when they're lifted.
And the OCR has another essential task: Damage Assessment. It's not solely focused on alphanumeric codes but also trained to detect visual cues. Cameras are programmed to identify any visible damage or irregularities on the container's surface. This automated damage evaluation aids in flagging containers that may require further inspection or maintenance.
The first hurdle has been overcome; the container is in the port's system, and the gantry crane gently places it onto the chassis of a waiting truck. Now, on solid ground, our container begins its journey through the terminal. On the monitor in his driver's cab, the truck driver can see exactly which container he is currently carrying and where it should be taken (learn more about the Container Inventory Terminal Tracker module).
Our container is moved deep into the storage yard, a vast expanse of stacked containers resembling a colourful maze. When the truck arrives at the destination pile, we meet the next protagonist: a straddle carrier takes over the container and places it in a previously defined place. The information is automatically transmitted to this vehicle's driver as well: block, row, bay, and tier.
The truck's driving and the handover between the truck and the straddle carrier are seamlessly monitored (Container Handover Terminal Tracker module); each task step is reported to the TOS in real-time using an Internet of Things (IoT) solution. There is no need for the two drivers to contact their colleagues on the computers by radio or to send an employee to check off the arrival at the yard.
To always know where a container is offers enormous advantages. And it's not just that you don't have to laboriously search for lost containers, which can sometimes take unbelievably weeks on large terminals. Imagine there is an unannounced, random inspection. Even if the container in question is currently being transported by a CHE, shipment to the inspection site can be scheduled immediately; instead of being forced to wait for the container to arrive at its location in the yard (learn more about the role of a CHE operator).
In our case, everything went smoothly, and our container settles into its temporary abode in the yard, surrounded by a vibrant community of containers from around the globe. It's a melting pot of goods, a diverse assembly of boxes waiting to continue their journey to exotic destinations.
While our container awaits its next move, its customs clearance begins elsewhere. The time required for the clearance and documentation processing can impact how long containers remain in the terminal yard. Delays in these processes can extend the storage period, especially if additional inspections or paperwork are necessary.
The duration of the stay in the yard also depends on whether it's a transhipment (transfer from one vessel to another) or a final destination. In one case, you are dependent on the punctuality of a ship; in the other, on that of a train or truck. And, of course, there is also the case that the container is opened and unloaded directly at the port, which often happens quite quickly.
Last but not least, the length of stay also depends on how quickly and efficiently work is done at the port or can be carried out at a specific time - just think of seasonal peaks. During these times, terminals may experience higher volumes, potentially leading to a temporary increase in storage times.
Back in the yard, our container's turn for departure has arrived. We meet the straddle carrier again; this time, it will lift our container onto an external truck (Job promote Terminal Tracker module).
But it's not our truck's turn yet because the Radio Data Terminal (RDT) always shows those jobs or containers at the top of the job list whose collectors are closest, even if the order changes again and again. This is called job promotion, and it makes the job selection easier, quicker and more accurate for the CHE operator. No thought goes into who needs to be served next; the whole focus is on the lift process itself.
You may now wonder how our driver knows which external truck is next. They're not connected to the system at all - or are they? Yes, they are. A small tag mounted to the truck at the gate makes it possible. For the duration of the visit to the terminal, the tag and truck are linked in the system - and several features run as smoothly and automatically as with the internal trucks (Truck Management Terminal Tracker module).
And finally, our external truck comes into view. It got the tag at the gate, waited patiently in the truck queue, and now it's ready to go. And what happened before is now happening in reverse order. The straddle carrier grabs the dark blue container, lifts it, moves it into its position above the truck, and lowers it precisely. The last handover on the terminal is done. For this time - maybe we'll see you again soon, little container?
With a gentle hum, the truck propels forward, our container snugly nestled on its bed. It's the last leg of the journey, a voyage through the terminal's exit gates, where the tag is returned, and into the vast network of roads beyond. Once part of a colossal ballet, the container now embarks on a solo performance, weaving through traffic towards its final destination.
And so, the journey of a container through a container terminal concludes – a symphony of CHE, like cranes, reach stackers, straddle carriers, and trucks conducted by the masterful TOS and its helpers. As our container disappears into the horizon, it carries not just goods but a tale of collaboration, efficiency, and the vibrant spirit of international trade.
It's fascinating how many little wheels interlock to route containers at the terminal reliably and on time. Digital and human eyes monitor their whereabouts and well-being. Steel giants and powerful machines transport them back and forth between ships, yards, trains and road trucks.
Towering over all this activity is the TOS and its little helpers – like OCR and Position Detection Systems (PDS automation), who together ensure that the worldwide supply chain runs like clockwork. A multitude of meshing features - such as job promotion - help to further improve processes and increase efficiency. They are the unsung heroes behind the curtain who make the show an even greater success.
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