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Port automation faces costs, operational challenges: McKinsey

A NEW report from research and consulting firm McKinsey & Co says the global port sector has been much slower to automate than other comparable industries, but that may be changing

Port automation faces costs, operational challenges: McKinsey

A NEW report from research and consulting firm McKinsey & Co says the global port sector has been much slower to automate than other comparable industries, but that may be changing

26 December 2018 - 19:00

A NEW report from research and consulting firm McKinsey & Co says the global port sector has been much slower to automate than other comparable industries, but that may be changing.

In its report, McKinsey noted several potential benefits of process automation for container ports, including safer working conditions, fewer human-related disruptions and more predictable performance.



The firm cited high up-front costs and 'significant' operational challenges such as poor data quality, a lack of communication across silos and difficulties with exception management as the top factors hindering port automation efforts.



'On the face of it, container ports seem ideal placed to automate,' the report said. 'The physical environment is structured and predictable. Many activities are repetitive and straightforward. They generate vast amounts of readily collected and processed data. Better still, the value from automation includes not only cost savings but also performance and safety gains for ports and the companies that do business there.



'Nonetheless, ports are moving more slowly than sectors with comparable complexities, in part because the economics of automating them haven't lived up to expectations.'



McKinsey pointed to the mining, warehousing and automotive manufacturing sectors as examples of industries that have reduced costs and improved productivity as a result of automation. The firm estimates early adopters of automation in the mining industry have shaved as much as 20 per cent off their operating expenses and increased their outputs by as much as 40 per cent, while warehouse operators have seen a 10 per cent decline in costs and a 30 per cent rise in productivity.



According to the report, there are nearly 40 cargo ports around the world using some form of process automation at a total investment cost of at least $10 billion. McKinsey projects this spending will accelerate in the near term, with ports and terminal operators expected to spend another $10 billion to $15 billion in the next five years.



The firm cautioned that it takes careful planning and management but said those ports that are successful in their automation efforts can decrease operating expenses 25 per cent to 55 per cent and increase productivity by 10 to 35 per cent.



Port asset management firms and transportation providers expect at least half of all greenfield port projects in the next five years to be semi- or fully automated, while 35 per cent said the number of automated ports will rise to above seven in ten.



McKinsey estimates that in order to justify the high cost of an automated greenfield port terminal, expenses would have to be 25 per cent lower than with a conventional facility or productivity would have to increase 30 per cent along with a 10 per cent decline in costs. But according to the report, survey respondents said the reality of terminal automation tends to fall short of expectations, with operating expenses generally falling only 15 per cent to 35 per cent and productivity actually declining 7 per cent to 15 per cent.



Given that the survey also indicated personnel capabilities, data quality, siloed operations and exception handling were the biggest impediments to realising the promised cost and productivity benefits of automation, McKinsey recommended ports 'start with a blank slate' to build automation-ready capabilities, create a collaborative environment by coordinating and communicating automation efforts across various departments and stakeholders, test any new systems extensively before putting them into operation, incorporate external data into automation systems and clearly define implementation, productivity and cost targets ahead of time.


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