| Written by Mark Buzinkay

The future of port automation is bright but challenging. Careful planning and implementation are necessary, based on proper process understanding, industry-wide standards, and the flexibility to adapt processes to customer demands. But what are the challenges to become an automated port?
port automation challenges

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At one point in 2021, more than 100 container ships were sitting off the Californian coast and standing in line to get into Long Beach, a "traffic" jam that would last until 2022. With an average container ship's load of about 14,000 containers, an immense number of containers are waiting to be unloaded. Similar problems have been reported along the East Coast and some European mega ports.

This logjam is a symptom of a stressed supply chain with many different causes, such as COVID lockdowns in East Asian ports, the blocking of the Suez Canal by the Evergreen mishap and the disbalance of full and empty containers. The blockage of the Suez reduces the total global shipping capacity by 6% alone (based on the more extended routing around Africa). Shipping lines cancelled destinations or entire planned sailings to keep up with delays.

The impact on global trade and the economy is felt—directly or indirectly—everywhere: freight rates increased by approximately 200% compared to 2020. In addition, demurrage, detention, and storage fees at ports and other storage facilities added additional costs. Rising shipping costs and the fear of scarcity caused increased prices with end customers, fueling inflation worldwide.

The logjam effect becomes visible in the lack of schedule reliability. In the first half of 2022, schedule reliability is below 50%, a historic low mark. This is bad for ship owners, freight forwarders, dealers, consumers and container terminal operators as yard utilisation increases heavily.

To ease the logjam effect and avoid a similar scenario in the future, the shipping industry at large must plan long-term and cooperate industry-wide:

  • Having an advanced warning system in terms of port capacity and productivity worldwide
  • Installing a re-routing procedure to react immediately upon early warning signs of logjams or blockages
  • Increasing the productivity of container ports to handle more in less time with a higher throughput between vessels and hinterland connections.

From the suggestions and solutions mentioned above, it is evident that a permanent fix for the current problem lies in the increased digitisation of all parts of the supply chain.



One way to reduce the stress on the supply chain is to digitise and then automate processes. Related to container terminals, the critical hubs of the supply chain network, it is vital to generate and connect the correct data in real-time. Furthermore, adequate data is the basis of informed decision-making, and finally, it becomes more flexible in reacting in a short time to changing demands and scenarios (also read about port development at Contecon Guayaquil). Port automation can be defined as using integrated technology to develop intelligent solutions for efficient control of traffic and trade flows on the port, thereby increasing port capacity and efficiency. In other words, all port assets must be connected and use the same protocols to exchange data in real-time.

Port automation promises to improve terminal capacity, container traceability, and productivity due to optimised processes and better coordination between assets and the terminal operating system (TOS). In addition, high container move productivity reduces shipping liners' berthing time, thus reducing the logjam of waiting vessels.

The container terminal is a complex interface between different supply chains, technologies and processes. Automation happens along these lines and in many variants, such as automated trucks connecting containers out of the port into the hinterland, automatic stacking cranes for faster movement and placement of containers and automated mooring systems for shorter mooring procedures.

Port automation can be grouped into yard automation, terminal interface automation, and connection automation for the foreland and hinterland.

Automated yard planning enables better positioning of containers to increase throughput with identical vehicles. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs), automated stacking cranes (ASCs), ship-to-shore cranes, and trucks work together in a very synchronised, pre-planned way to optimise moving time and available space. Yard automation requires container position determination systems (PDS) that make the location of all the containers within the terminal known at any time through sensors. This enables their effective management, making them available to be quickly retrieved for loading on a ship or picking up for inland distribution.

Terminal interface automation covers automated gate systems (AGSs) for easy port access for trucks, automated mooring systems and even automated ship-to-shore cranes (ASSC). That said, an operator is still in charge of monitoring cranes instead of operating them. All systems rely on radio frequency identification (RFID) or optical character recognition to quickly identify containers.

Foreland and hinterland can be connected and automated too. Automated trains and warehouses are already a reality, and automated trucks and ships may follow soon.

Learn more about Terminal Tracker Position Detection System in Montreal.



"TIC4.0 promotes a collaborative approach that benefits the entire industry. By working together with other stakeholders, we can drive innovation and ensure that our solutions meet the highest quality and performance standards."

Thomas Zengerle, CTO Identec Solutions


Yet, even as the technology becomes increasingly available, only around 10% of ports are fully automated. There are several reasons for this, but the honest answer is that, despite its benefits, automation is not the answer for every port right now (continue reading about the possibilities of terminal automation).

One challenge to port automation is common standards. To connect data in real time, standard protocols, similar to the development of the internet, are necessary. Establishing common standards, like TIC4.0, will be crucial. An exciting part of TIC 4.0 is that it's not only the terminal operators or just the equipment manufacturers who sit together. It is all stakeholders: terminal operators, the equipment manufacturers, and the solution providers who try to promote, define, and adapt standards together. New solutions need to be able to talk to other existing solutions in a container terminal, independent from the manufacturer or solution provider.

One aspect of common standards is that they also need to be prepared for any future development, which brings us another challenge to automating ports: costs. For example, due to budget restrictions, automation is only possible for one part of the terminal, but in the future, other parts are planned to be automated as well, maybe with another vendor. Therefore, it makes sense that all of these solutions easily communicate with each other so that implementation or replacement is "plug & play". As a result, the terminal operator has less risk, and implementation time will decrease. This will reduce the costs and encourage terminal operators to automate in steps instead of in complex, giant projects and avoid significant one-time investments.

Discussing investments always involves a return on investment calculation, and automation is one way to realise a clear return on investment because of more efficiency and, therefore, more profitability. It is not only about saving costs but also enabling much better planning and intelligent utilisation of equipment, in addition to knowing the status of the equipment, all in real-time. Terminal Operating Systems can only be as sound as the data input is. Making all your assets smart is very often the foundation for successful automation.

Automation is an excellent recipe for improving the productivity of brownfield and greenfield container terminals. It is fair to say that semi-automation may hold some advantages against a fully automated port in most scenarios. Operational flexibility is needed as you want to keep your processes open to changing customer demands. TTI Algeciras is a good example. Being a semi-automated container terminal, they are the only European terminal listed at the Top-10 of the 2020 global Container Port Performance Index. TTI Algeciras has an accurate picture of its equipment in real-time and uses a fleet management module and automated asset utilisation. On top of that, they have had proper planning and scheduling because they have visibility through PDS.




What is TIC4.0?

The Terminal Industry Committee (TIC) is an initiative of key stakeholders in the maritime industry, such as terminal operators, equipment manufacturers, and solution providers. It aims to develop and promote uniform standards and protocols for port automation. These protocols are intended to facilitate the integration of different systems and technologies, reduce complexity, and improve port efficiency.

The "4.0" stands for the fourth industrial revolution, also known as Industry 4.0, and refers to the current automation and data exchange trend in manufacturing and other industries. Relevant technologies in this context are the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, big data, cloud computing and blockchain.

What are the objectives of TIC4.0?

Common protocols and standards are intended to ensure interoperability between different devices and software solutions. To achieve this, stakeholders such as terminal operators, equipment manufacturers and technology providers must work together. The committee also supports the introduction of innovative and environmentally friendly solutions across the industry.

What are the key components of TIC4.0?

One of the main focuses is the creation of standardised protocols for data exchange so that different systems can communicate effectively with each other. The envisaged interoperability framework covers everything from cranes and vehicles to terminal operating systems (TOS) and port community systems (PCS). To be able to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of automated systems, TIC4.0 is working on metrics to enable consistent assessment and benchmarking across the industry. And, of course, cybersecurity is also a major concern, with robust standards being developed to protect automated systems from cyber threats.

What are the challenges and the future outlook of TIC4.0?

The industry-wide adoption of the standards is indeed a significant challenge, requiring the commitment of all stakeholders. Technological integration into existing legacy systems is complex and costly, but TIC4.0 is committed to providing as much support as possible to manage transitions and avoid disruptions. The standards will also be continuously updated and refined to ensure their relevance and effectiveness in the face of rapid technological advances.

Despite these challenges, the future looks bright for TIC4.0. More and more stakeholders are realising the value of standardisation, and adoption rates are expected to increase.


The future of port automation is bright but challenging. Careful planning and implementation are necessary, based on proper process understanding, industry-wide standards, and the flexibility to adapt processes to customer demands. On the other hand, performance becomes more predictable at the price of high up-front capital expenditures if projects are not designed gradually. In total, operating expenses decline, but productivity in fully automated terminals can also reduce the ROI.

Terminal Automation and What to look for

Research our extensive resources about port automation here...


(1) https://www.transportevents.com/presentations/BKK2023/TIC4.0_Boris-Wenzel.pdf

Note: This article was updated on the 15th of June 2024



Mark Buzinkay, Head of Marketing

Mark Buzinkay holds a PhD in Virtual Anthropology, a Master in Business Administration (Telecommunications Mgmt), a Master of Science in Information Management and a Master of Arts in History, Sociology and Philosophy. Mark