PARTNER FEATURE: The promise of automating and adding intelligence to industrial systems has long attracted widespread attention across the world, as companies large and small look to improve efficiency, safety and find ways to shrink their energy usage and resulting carbon footprint.

Nowhere is this more true than in China where a nationwide 5G network, supported by some 2.5 million base stations, enables organisations to connect critical applications to high-speed, low-latency private networks, allowing remote monitoring of operations and real-time data analysis of everything from turnaround times to capacity utilisation.

With severe disruptions to global supply chains over the past couple of years, the logistics sector in general and ports in specific have been early recipients of funding aimed at applying advanced technologies to reduce congestion, which has led to shortages at factories and retail shops not only in China but across the world.

Conventional horizontal transportation hubs typically face three major challenges: harsh working environments, safety risks due to operator fatigue and inefficient manual dispatching.

In an effort to build an intelligent and green port, Tianjin Port Group, together with Huawei and other partners, built a smart container terminal at Section C of the port, which was officially put into operation in October 2021.

The automation and intelligent upgrade of the facility aimed to achieve the optimal efficiency of the entire port system, covering employees, machines, storage yards, vehicles, ships and cargo.  A cloud-based centralised transportation dispatching system was deployed to increase port-wide efficiency.

The port previously relied on manual berth scheduling and allocation, which was time-consuming and resulted in high crane operating costs. Automating various processes resulted in cutting planning times from hours to minutes.

Huawei’s intelligent systems reduced ship berthing times by 7 per cent, cargo loading and uploading times from a single ship by 80 per cent, while improving loading efficiency per hour by 5 per cent.

Safety gains
Operating quay and gantry cranes can be dangerous and exhausting, with operators working intensive eight-hour shifts from a height of 40 metres. They spend the entire shift with their heads tilted downwards, which can result in serious health issues.

Huawei’s intelligent remote-control platform allows port operators to monitor the entire operation process and operate equipment via a computer from the comfort of an automation control centre.

A single operator can manage multiple sets of equipment at the same time, with no human intervention required under normal circumstances. When monitoring container loading and unloading, the operator simply needs to spend a few seconds confirming the safety of the operation.

“Our intelligent remote-control solution creates business value by increasing productivity, and delivers significant social value by enabling safer and more hospitable working environments,” said Yue Kun, CTO of Huawei’s Smart Road, Waterway & Port business unit.

After remote-controlled cranes automatically pick up containers, they are loaded onto unmanned electric vehicles. Under the guidance of the BeiDou navigation satellite system, cranes are able to align containers on to trucks on the first try 90 per cent of the time, significantly improving operational efficiency.

One key application is Huawei’s AI-based intelligent horizontal transportation system, supported by a 5G network combined with Level 4 autonomous driverless capabilities, which enables 76 intelligent guided vehicles in the port’s fleet to efficiently interact with each other.

The high-precision positioning system ensures the vehicles take the most direct route to the container yard.

The company stated its intelligent driving platform, supported by an on-site mobile data centre, provides the required computing power and also simplifies operations and maintenance by using standardised hardware.

In addition, Huawei’s core service platform works with a charging management system to charge vehicles at the best possible time, preventing interruptions to fleet services.

Reduced manpower
The intelligent and digital transformation of the port has led to numerous benefits.

Previously, transporting containers to storage yards required a large number of container trucks as well as drivers. Tianjin Port, for example, had 76 container trucks. To ensure 24/7 operations, each truck requires three drivers to work three daily shifts, which means a total of 210 drivers.

By moving to autonomous vehicles, loading a container now consumes 20 per cent less energy, and cranes are 20 per cent  more efficient on average, with each crane able to process 39 containers an hour. This has reduced labour costs by 60 per cent compared with conventional container operations.

Tianjin Port is now one of China’s most technologically advanced ports and a vital hub for the country’s One Belt One Road initiative.

By the end of 2021, the port’s cargo throughput reached 435 million tons, ranking ninth in the world, while the container throughput exceeded 18.35 million TEUs, putting it eighth globally.

The achievement is seen as a blueprint for other parts of the world to build intelligent and low-carbon ports, said Yue.

Global blueprint
Port congestion, of course, can disrupt supply chains in any country. At the end of 2021, ports in Europe and the US temporarily increased overtime shifts to extend operating hours to deal with backlogs. For example, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which account for about 40 of the total port freight throughput in the US, promised to run 24/7. The problem, however, did not lie in how many hours they operated a day. The main constraint was not enough workers.

“Fully automated smart ports are undoubtedly the best solution for this problem,” he said.

In addition to efficiency gains, the vision behind the port upgrade included measures to make the generally energy-intensive operations greener.

Huawei’s integrated teams use digital power technologies to help ports achieve their carbon neutrality goals, leveraging the company’s significant investments in PV power generation, energy storage and green base stations.

Its dedicated Customs & Port Team is one of four integrated units set up by the company, with the aim to integrate resources from its R&D groups, product lines and innovation labs.

“The idea is to leverage the ICT expertise Huawei has built up over the years to find the right technologies for the industry, solve problems and create value for customers,” Yue said.

Huawei, Tianjin Port and others partners have set up a port innovation lab, giving all parties a single facility to carry out joint innovations to overcome challenges in building smart, green ports.

“Together, we will enable the digital transformation and green development of ports, and develop a solution in China that can be used to build smart green ports the world over,” he said.