| Written by Mark Buzinkay

The logistics of finished vehicles has grown impressively during the last decade, leading to the emergence of a world-wide hub and spoke network. Despite high growth rates, the structure of the market has led to a dramatic increase in competition between ports. Nowadays, ports must face up to market demands and deliver quality service and improved efficiency. This post discusses the contributing factors to automotive port efficiency and highlights main challenges in operations. 
Automotive port operations

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What do automotive ro-ro terminals do?

Roll-on/roll-off (Ro-Ro) transport has taken on a progressively significant role in automotive supply chain administration. This particular method can merge road and railway transport at a multimodal transport centre and diminish expenses in the automotive supply chain. Numerous ports globally, including those in Vigo, Santander, Pasajes, Barcelona, Sagunto, Setúbal, Le Havre, Livorno, Sheerness (Medway ports), Bristol, Copenhagen, Malmö, Göeborg, Emden, Zeebrugge/Ghent, Antwerp, and Rotterdam, are outfitted with Ro-Ro terminals.

Automotive Ro-Ro terminals handle the storage, loading, and unloading of commercial vehicles. Even with their cost-effectiveness, ports encounter stiff rivalry from road and railway transport due to their minimal manual tasks and superior efficiency. Inefficient RoRo cargo operations heighten the likelihood of disruptions to ship timetables and lead to port traffic bottlenecks. In the context of tidal ports, optimal ship-loading efficiency is crucial to prevent ship departure hold-ups. Furthermore, in contrast to shipping containers, commercial vehicles cannot be piled up in a yard. With the surge in commercial vehicles, restricted storage capacities have impeded the growth of Ro-Ro terminals. For managers, enhancing ship-loading efficiency and optimising storage resource utilisation to boost the competitiveness of Ro-Ro terminals remains a significant hurdle.

Contrary to ship-loading tasks in container terminals, in automotive Ro-Ro terminals, the deployment of supplementary equipment like quay cranes (QCs), yard cranes (YCs), automated stacking cranes (ASCs), and in-yard trucks (ITs) is not required. Drivers directly oversee the placement of commercial vehicles onto ships at Ro-Ro terminals. Swiftly identifying storage spots for individual vehicles is paramount for ship-loading efficiency; hence, it's advantageous for drivers to minimise time spent locating loaded vehicles. As a result, a logical vehicle arrangement holds greater significance in Ro-Ro terminals than in container terminals.

In practical yard oversight, a Ro-Ro terminal will bill suppliers (clients) an additional storage charge if their goods remain in the yard beyond a specified duration. Consequently, commercial vehicles from varied suppliers trickle into the Ro-Ro terminal throughout the week. The procedures involved in loading vehicles onto a Ro-Ro ship are notably rigorous.

The yard area of automotive Ro-Ro terminals is typically segmented into several sections. Commercial vehicles set to depart the port collectively are generally housed in linked segments of the yard. Yet, even if vehicles destined for the same ship are allocated to one or multiple neighbouring sections, the arrangement of vehicles with identical ship-loading sequences might be dispersed across the chosen section/sections.

Relative to the procedures linked with vehicles entering the yard, rigorous ship-loading tasks demand heightened efficiency standards for workers. Depending on ship-loading prerequisites, one or multiple groups of drivers are designated for the loading tasks of a Ro-Ro ship. Typically, a team of 10 drivers is assigned for the ship-loading tasks of roughly 200 vehicles, and a maximum of three driver teams are engaged for the loading tasks of a Ro-Ro ship due to limited manpower. Each group is provided with a mini-bus to ferry drivers from the ship back to the yard. During a single ship-loading cycle, workers drive vehicles from the yard to the Ro-Ro ship and then collectively head back to the yard using the mini-bus. A driver who wraps up the loading task awaits at the dock until all fellow drivers in the group finish their assignments. Upon returning to the target section, they proceed on foot to locate their subsequent vehicles. Evidently, a logical vehicle arrangement is beneficial for ship-loading efficiency, a critical element showcasing the output of a Ro-Ro terminal. For example, during one ship-loading cycle, if vehicles destined for a similar part of a Ro-Ro ship are placed in a segment of one section, the duration needed for drivers to locate the vehicles can be curtailed. Additionally, the optimal vehicle arrangement can amplify the synchronised tasks of drivers in a group and diminish drivers' idle time at the dock. In summation, a dispersed arrangement can lead to a ship-loading procedure characterised by reduced efficiency, intricate driver coordination, and port traffic snarls.


Complex operations

Due to its pivotal role in the evolution of logistic functions, a rising model in the automotive supply chain views the Ro-Ro port terminal as capable of offering economies of scope if it can facilitate buffering, storage with pre-delivery checks, and delay-based customisation, evolving into a fresh separation point between the supply chain's forecast-driven and the demand-responsive aspects. Typically, this logistic hub oversees the loading and unloading of vessels and their interim storage prior to proceeding to their ultimate location. RoRo transport effectiveness in strategising and executing terminal tasks is paramount as it impacts both the waiting period of vessels to enter/leave the port or dock (along with the associated elevated expenses) and the overcrowding of the adjacent road system due to line-ups of logistic professionals (carriers) and automobiles. Furthermore, the implications of the running time of the engines of idling vessels and autos on environmental contamination levels and the security of the participants involved must be acknowledged.

Given the above reasons, experts emphasise the urgency for enhanced terminal procedures to convey more automobiles while diminishing logistic expenditures. This proficiency can be realised by incorporating operations management methodologies.

Numerous studies have delved into enhancing operations management in container terminals, yet only a handful have focused on automobile terminals. Regrettably, models for container terminals can't be directly adapted to car terminal models for several justifications. Containers can be piled up to maximise storage area, might be shifted multiple times during their tenure in a centre, and necessitate various transport tools (cranes, lift trucks, reach stackers, and so on). In contrast, cars can't be stacked, are typically not moved to minimise potential hazards or harm to the cars (in transhipment, damage ratios between 0.5% and 1.0% are deemed tolerable according to), and are operated by drivers.

Regarding resources in the car terminal process, a distinct trait of drivers is that they're perceived to possess unlimited capability, given they can typically be recruited on demand from a comprehensive port workforce. The crucial factor is the duration a ship is prepared to remain at the port. Based on this, the terminal determines the count of drivers required for each work period. However, some experts aim to harmonise the distribution of labour to prevent the short-term employment of novice drivers, which could elevate damage occurrences.

Lastly, the primary constrained resource is the yard: as vehicles are often not dispatched directly to customers, they necessitate storage within the terminal. The storage capability, structured in 'lanes', must be orchestrated in light of the unpredictability surrounding the departure timings of incoming and outgoing maritime and terrestrial vehicles. Specifically, due to the emphasis on minimising relocations, vehicles intended to depart the port collectively are typically housed in linked segments of parking zones and are commonly categorised based on their originating ship, the make, and the brand.


Challenges and solutions to optimal automotive port operations

As stated above, drivers, yard space and timely processes are the distinguishing factors of successful (=efficient and on-time) roro car handling. Extending the yard is a costly, long-term investment with a complex set of barriers: Approval processes of governmental bodies, purchasing land or constructing additional stories on a building, interfering with existing operations in a car terminal, extending existing infrastructure and IT and more. Hiring, teaching and holding a large pool of drivers is challenging and costly. But optimising processes, especially car handling to/out of vessels, can be done on an incremental basis constantly, without large upfront investments and risks.

One of the factors within the car handling process that reduces efficiency is the location of the single car. Optimally, cars are aligned in groups to be handled in groups, but very often, exemptions happen. Automotive port operations not only involve the transfer of vehicles to/from the car vessel, but they also include operations on the car itself, like tire changes, refuelling, mounting country-specific parts, quality/damage checks, and car wash. These activities are not performed at the (parking) spot but in dedicated areas (garage, gas station, ...), asking for locating a specific vehicle, driving it to the target area, performing the task and driving it back to the assigned car group. As cars are more and more personalised, it is crucial to identify the right car before driving it off to the designated area. Even more, it is essential to understand which car needs what and what has been done already.

When identification is an important part of the car handling process, location is the other. Big automotive ports handle hundreds of thousands of cars annually, some even millions, in yards of giant extent. Looking for a "lost" car is almost like looking for a lost container: it is a huge effort. It occupies dedicated personnel 24/7, wastes resources and costs critical time, making everybody unhappy - from the operations manager to the vessel captain. That's why the current location of a specific vehicle is such a crucial commodity in automotive ro-ro operations, and improvement in this part of the process dramatically impacts efficiency and effectiveness. Process and operations managers constantly try to optimise the identification and localisation of vehicles in order to reduce errors and mishandling of cars. Learn more about locating vehicles in a car park automatically.



What are automotive Ro-Ro terminals and why are they important?
Automotive Ro-Ro (Roll-on/Roll-off) terminals are specialized ports designed for the loading and unloading of vehicles, primarily cars, directly onto shipping vessels. They play a pivotal role in the automotive supply chain, offering a seamless integration of road, railway, and maritime transport. Their efficiency directly impacts the cost, speed, and reliability of vehicle distribution globally.

How do Ro-Ro terminals differ from standard container terminals?
Unlike standard container terminals that use various equipment like cranes and forklifts to handle stacked containers, Ro-Ro terminals are designed for vehicles to be driven directly onto or off the shipping vessels. This means vehicles are not typically stacked or relocated multiple times, reducing potential damage. Additionally, while container terminals rely heavily on equipment, Ro-Ro terminals primarily depend on drivers to place vehicles onto ships.

What challenges are commonly faced in automotive port operations?
Some of the primary challenges include managing limited yard space for vehicle storage, ensuring efficient and timely processes to prevent vessel delays, and managing a large pool of drivers. Additionally, with vehicles becoming more personalized, correctly identifying and locating specific vehicles for tasks like refueling, quality checks, or part installations becomes crucial. Improper identification or misplacement can lead to operational inefficiencies and increased costs.



Automotive Ro-Ro terminals play a crucial role in the automotive supply chain, merging road and railway transport and reducing costs. These terminals, found in numerous global ports, manage the storage, loading, and unloading of commercial vehicles. Their efficiency is vital, impacting vessel queuing times, port traffic, and overall supply chain fluidity. Unlike container terminals, Ro-Ro terminals don't require supplementary equipment, relying on drivers for vehicle placement. The yard space, timely processes, and drivers are pivotal for efficient operations. Challenges include space constraints, driver management, and vehicle identification and location. Optimizing these processes, especially car handling, can enhance efficiency without significant upfront investments.

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T. Fischer et al.: Planning vehicle transshipment in a seaport automobile terminal using a multi-agent system Eur. J. Oper. Res. (2005)

R. Iannone et al.: Proposal for a flexible discrete event simulation model for assessing the daily operation decisions in a Ro-Ro terminal Simul. Modell. Pract. Theory (2016)

D.C. Mattfeld et al.: Terminal operations management in vehicle transshipment. Transp. Res. Part A: Policy Pract. (2003)