In the high-tech equivalent of "look Mum, no hands," Ports of Auckland's new 70-tonne straddle carriers will hurtle around at up to 22km/h, without anyone at the controls.

This Luddite's nightmare means no human contact with the container from the time the truck driver unscrews his twist locks to just before it is hoisted by crane and deposited on a ship. For imports, it will be the same process, only in reverse.

As the port sees it, public opinion is against expansion through further reclamation, so the only way to improve productivity is through technology.

The system is now being tested, with empty containers stacked high to act as a barrier in case something goes wrong.

Advertisement

And something going wrong doesn't really bear thinking about: fully laden, the port's new carriers weigh in at 100 tonnes - not easy to stop in a hurry.

When the project is complete, the port's 27 new blue carriers will be involved in an elaborate dance to get containers on and off ships, with the process controlled by software at head office.

"It feels funny when you see this giant machine coming straight towards you," says the port's automation project manager, Ross Clarke.

The Auckland Council-owned port is under pressure from New Zealand First to relocate to Whang─ürei, and the Government is conducting a comprehensive upper North Island logistics and freight review to ensure New Zealand's supply chain is fit for purpose in the longer term.

The review will guide the development and delivery of a freight and logistics strategy for the upper North Island. This includes a feasibility study to explore moving the location of Ports of Auckland, with consideration to be given to Northport.

Clarke says the new straddle carrier technology, alongside the port's three new cranes that arrived last year from China, is seen as a game changer.

Automation will increase its terminal capacity from just over 900,000 TEU (20-foot equivalent units) a year to 1.6-1.7 million, the port says.

Auckland will be the first New Zealand port to partially automate its container terminal.

At the same time, the port says the straddle carriers will save as much as 10 per cent on fuel use. There should also be less impact on neighbouring communities as they will require less light and will not make as much noise as conventional, manned carriers.

The new Konecrane carriers will deliver more capacity because they can stack four containers compared to just three for the existing carriers. This, combined with changes to the terminal layout and past reclamation work, is expected to increase capacity by 80 per cent.

They come with a positioning system called Locator - a type of ground-based GPS that boasts an accuracy of plus or minus 3cm.

Clarke says that given its constrained area, something had to be done to grow the port.

Auckland's new automated straddle carriers can stack containers four high. Photo / Leon Menzies
Auckland's new automated straddle carriers can stack containers four high. Photo / Leon Menzies

"If we didn't do something to increase that capacity then the business's throughput, and therefore revenue and profit, would be capped.

"We can't expand the footprint of the terminal - the public have been clear about that," he says.

"Dwell times" - the time it takes for exports inside terminal gates to be loaded onto a ship and imports onto a truck or train - are already low by world standards.

"So the only other avenue to increase the storage capacity is to stack more densely and we are going up with automated machines."

Automation means stevedoring roles will go, but Clarke says the number of jobs lost is likely to be less than the original estimate of 50.

"The chances are that with the new cranes, and the increased throughput, the reduction in jobs might not be that much at all," he says.

"Implementing automation helps fund the investment in the new technology. Reducing jobs was never the ambition - it's just an outcome."

Clarke says the port has trouble recruiting enough staff to deal with current demand, and there are vacancies it can't fill.

"With the business growing, and the number of unfilled jobs that we have at the moment, the actual level of redundancies might be quite small."

The high-tech carriers will initially work with the port's new, $60 million, 82.3m high cranes which weigh in at 2100 tonnes apiece, against 1200 and 1300 tonnes for the older cranes.

The port says that with these new cranes, and the new deepwater berth they will sit alongside, the port will be able to handle the biggest ships coming to these shores.

They can lift four containers at once, weighing up to 130 tonnes combined, a New Zealand first. The current cranes can lift two containers, weighing up to 65 tonnes.

The new cranes can service ships carrying more than 11,000 TEU, which the port expects will offer some "future-proofing" against increases in the size of ships.

Ports of Auckland is only the second port in the world to automate as a "brownfields" development - most automated ports are built from scratch.

Clarke says maintaining the port's day-to-day operations while the project is underway has been a big challenge.

Initially the northern third of the terminal - where the new cranes are - will be automated while the southern part will continue with manned straddle carriers.

Once it is satisfied that the technology is working to plan, the port company will complete the rollout for the rest of the terminal.

The first stage goes live in February next year, followed by the second stage in April.

Clarke says that by the middle of 2020, the port should have a fully operational automated container terminal.