Under-pressure Ports of Auckland has finally made a public statement about the timing of the full rollout of its controversial container terminal automation project - without saying when that will be.
In a statement released after the close of business on Tuesday, the port gave the steps timetable for completing the five-year automation project.
It said in answer to "the question that everyone asks, what day will automation go live?" the port's response is "when everything is ready".
The Auckland Council-owned port, New Zealand's main imports gateway, has been in the spotlight after the Herald obtained an advisory from the port saying automation was now likely to be August sometime - after chief executive Tony Gibson had undertaken in March that it would be June or early July.
The advisory said final stage pavement remediation work was 45 per cent completed, and weather dependent. Final rollout also depended on assessments and reviews the council required, it said.
Tuesday's statement flagged that productivity at the port, already under critical scrutiny, would drop in the commissioning process - though this is to be expected.
Presumably referring to Gibson's go live undertaking of June or early July, the statement said: "We have previously given an indication of when automation would be switched on, but we also gave a commitment that we would not proceed until everything is ready".
After a preamble about the challenges of automating a container terminal while it is still operating and the difficulties of Covid-19 restrictions this year and last, the statement said before the port could proceed with full rollout it needed "to meet four key deliverables"
These were a safety assurance review on the project, recommended by the recent independent report on health and safety at the port; that the automated part of the terminal must meet an agreed level of productivity; the automation software must meet an agreed level of productivity; and the port "must make sure that our own people are ready for the change". This included making sure the port had enough people and everyone had received the required training and upskilling.
"Once these deliverables have been met, we will give our customers - shipping lines, transporters, and others in the supply chain - eight weeks notice of the go-live date. This will give everyone time to plan," said the statement which was not attributed to any port leader.
Chief executive Tony Gibson on Tuesday attended a meeting of the Auckland Council committee which oversees council-owned entities to report on the port's third-quarter financial results.
The Herald understands in response to questioning, he agreed an August automation start was likely but was reluctant to comment further on timing.
The port is currently operating in two parts, automated and manual.
While shipping congestion, berthing and unloading delays and high consumer import demand is a global feature post the Covid pandemic outbreak, Ports of Auckland has been heavily criticised by the freight sector for exacerbating the resulting supply chain issues in New Zealand by not being prepared or able to handle the pressure.
Container ships carrying imports for Auckland businesses have been diverted to Tauranga and Northland to avoid delays at Auckland for several months.
The port company and the council have refused to reveal the cost of the prolonged automation project.
The statement said the port would give regular progress reports on its preparations for a full rollout.
These would include: an indication of when the safety assurance review would be complete; metrics for productivity and system stability; and assessment of the port's internal readiness.
"On the go-live date we will close the container terminal for 84 hours to prepare the manual part of the terminal for automated operations. Work that will take place at this time includes the removal of old light poles which become redundant at the end of manual operations, configuration of the container stacks for automated operation, configuration of the automated straddle carriers for full-yard operation and much more. Further detail on these works will be provided closer to the time.
"At the end of the 84-hour shut-down, operations will resume. We expect there to be a drop in productivity at this point and a period of system optimisation will be required to return productivity to normal levels. To support the operation and our customers through this period, we are increasing our staffing levels to compensate for the expected drop in productivity. Recruitment of new staff and training of existing staff for higher-skilled roles is going well. We are also recruiting a small number of key staff – crane operators – from overseas."
The question that everyone asks is: what day will automation go live? The answer to that is: when everything is ready. We have previously given an indication of when automation would be switched on, but we also gave a commitment that we would not proceed until everything is ready. That's because we have to get this right. We cannot take a risk with the safety and wellbeing of our staff, or with the Auckland and New Zealand supply chain, just to meet a date.