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Autonomous Shipping Yards are Ramping Up Globalization Efforts

The new Tuas Port in Singapore is on its way to becoming one of the world’s largest autonomous shipping yards.

The completion of the one-quarter stage of the Tuas Port project (1), which is expected to cost more than 20 billion USD and be completed by the 2040s (2), represents the culmination of almost 34 million hours of effort.

2,000 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of storage capacity were made available at Tuas Port in September to keep containers waiting to be transshipped. A TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit) is the standard size of a shipping container.

Tuas Port Phase 1 covers 414 hectares, 773 football fields, and will add 20 million TEUs to Singapore’s present annual handling capacity of 37.2 million.

When finished, Tuas Port would have the capabilities to accommodate 65 million TEUs, roughly doubling Singapore’s existing port capacity.

The government first proposed the port in 2012, and it will be Singapore’s fifth container port since Tanjong Pagar Terminal opened in 1972.

It will merge operations already underway at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel, Brani, and Pasir Panjang ports, decreasing the need to transport containers among them. It will be bigger, greener, and more technically sophisticated than its predecessors.

When completed, Tuas Port is expected to take up 1,337 hectares of land, around three-quarters the scale of Singapore’s central region or twice as big as Ang Mo Kio Town.

Tuas Port
Source: Straits Times Graphics
Tuas Port autonomous shipping yards
Source: Straits Times Graphics

The mega port will leverage automation for essential activities to reinvigorate the marine industry. If additional ports adopt comparable ideas, global trade efficiency might improve dramatically over the next five years.

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Pioneers in Autonomous Shipping Yards

Over 90% of containers arriving in Singapore are transit goods on their way to international destinations by land (3). The Southeast Asia terminal links over 600 ports in 120 nations and generates over 3 billion USD in annual income (4).

“Trade is our lifeblood, so we put so much effort into staying ahead of the curve and remaining relevant.” We invest in keeping on top of the most cutting-edge technology that can help us stay competitive, whether in autonomous vessels, decarbonization, sustainability, or sustainable fuels. “It’s about staying relevant in the future,” said Niam Chiang Meng, head of Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) (5).

Tuas Port phase one will include 21 deep-water berths with a throughput of 20 million TEU per year when completed.

Dredging International Asia Pacific – Daelim Industrial Joint Venture Pte Ltd is implementing the project, which entailed four years of consistent planning and six years of engineering work. Soil rehabilitation work on 1,000 acres of land, including 725 acres of freshly reclaimed land, was part of the project. Contractors also built and installed 221 10-story tall caissons, each carrying 15,000 tonnes, for more than five miles of a seawall.

“The completion of Tuas Port’s phase 1 reclamation is a remarkable milestone, displaying our tenacity in the face of hardship and reaffirming Singapore’s standing as a dependable global hub port respected by partners. It also demonstrates Singapore’s future-readiness,” said S Iswaran, Minister of Transport (6).

According to MPA, work on phase 2’s reclamation works is progressing as planned, and preparation for phase 3 has begun. Tuas port will be able to handle 65 million TEU yearly when finished in four phases in the 2040s, making it among the world’s largest autonomous shipping yards.

The port is being built as an automated, intelligent, and sustainable port, with electrified, automated yard cranes and uncrewed automated guided vehicles transporting containers from the yard to the dock.

It will also use digital technologies such as next-generation vessel traffic control systems, which will open up new frontiers in terms of marine safety, security, and efficiency, especially in reducing ship turnaround times.

Notably, in the fiscal year 2020, the Singapore-based port operator reported revenue of about 4.2 billion Singapore dollars. PSA International had the highest revenue in 2011, reporting 4.3 billion Singapore dollars (7).

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Growth of Autonomous Shipping Yards

A new research study on Smart Ports Market discusses the important drivers driving market growth, opportunities, challenges, and risks encountered by leading players and the industry (8). It also examines important new trends and their implications for current and future growth.

The study highlighted that in terms of revenue, the global smart ports or autonomous shipping yards market was valued at 1,793.8 million USD in 2019 and is predicted to increase at a 27.7% CAGR from 2020 to 2027.

A smart port is a container transportation port that employs cutting-edge technologies such as big data, IoT, machine learning, AI, and other smart technology to boost operational efficiency and competitive edge in the transportation sector. Also, these technologies can help autonomous shipping yards enhance environmental sustainability.

The smart port includes automated freight forwarding programs that facilitate the automatic transfer of load forwarding records from shipping containers to vessels. It also interfaces with cargo brokers and freight forwarding apps.

Smart port systems can also monitor cargo unloading, loading, unpacking, and handling them closely to ensure security and safety. As a result, fuel consumption, storage capacity, and expenditures are saved (9).

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Combating Supply Chain Bottlenecks and Quickening Globalization

The Port of Rotterdam, three Chinese ports, and the Port of Melbourne in Australia are completely automated.

A total of 53 container terminals worldwide are automated to some extent, accounting for only 4% of worldwide container terminal capacity.

Unloading a container ship on the west coast of the United States, where unions have fought automation, takes twice as long as it does in Shanghai. Last year, however, the Port of Virginia managed a 25% increase in cargo volume thanks to autonomous shipping yards (10).

Last year, the Port of Virginia experienced its “most productive year” ever, with a 25.2% increase in cargo volume over the previous year (11).

The Port of Virginia is much more than a single port. It encompasses all of Hampton Roads’ major ports, making it one of the world’s largest natural harbors. The Virginia Port Authority, a state-level agency, manages the ports of Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Newport News.

That organizational style differs from most other ports, and Stephen Edwards, the port authority’s CEO and executive director, attributes it to better performance (12).

Two different entities manage the two ports in the Los Angeles area. The Virginia Port Authority manages all of the terminals in Hampton Roads. It implies that if one terminal becomes congested, the port administration can quickly transfer cargo to another.

“There are significant variations in how we function that work in our favor,” Edwards added (13).

Aside from the two ports, three trucking companies in the Los Angeles area are unaffiliated to the terminals. According to Edwards, the port authority in Virginia has complete control over the trucking fleet and how to restock it amid shortages.

He added that modernization initiatives had also paid off. The port, for example, invested 320 million USD in 2019 to extend the Virginia International Gateway terminal by 800 feet.

In addition, when ships are late, the automated stacking cranes at the terminal allow the port to spend less time operating extra hours and burning out staff. Edwards claimed that it makes a tremendous difference, with only one out of every five ships turning up on time this year.

In 2016, the Port of Virginia paid 217 million USD for 86 automated cranes. These kinds of investments allowed for last year’s productivity record (14).

“Virginia’s highly autonomous shipping yards have weathered the current crisis better than its peers,” pointed out Rich Lowry for Politico last October (15).

The port is also planning for the future. In November, a proposal to increase train capacity was approved, with completion set for 2023 (16). The port’s overall on-dock rail capacity will grow by 260k containers per year, reaching 1.1 million.

It has also surmounted the Jones Act and the Foreign Dredge Act’s challenges and is currently extending its commercial ship channel to 55 feet (17). It will enable two-way movement of the world’s largest container ships.

“Our dredging progress has us on schedule to bring Virginia home to the deepest harbor on the United States East Coast by late 2024,” Edwards added.

In short, more automation, better technology, and increased capacity are already making a difference in Virginia.

As previously mentioned, autonomous shipping yards, Tuas Port would increase Singapore’s 20-foot container processing capacity from 37 million to 65 million years after completion. Every port authority worldwide should take notice.

After all, autonomous shipping yards allow commodities to flow more quickly, which in turn, would make it easier for us to combat supply chain slowdowns and bring in the next wave of globalization.