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Autonomous Everything: The Workforce and The Future of Automated Port Terminals

In a series of posts entitled Autonomous Everything, we are exploring automation in all its technological forms, including legacy working assumptions about the term itself.  We began the series in June at the bleeding edge of autonomous vehicles, with a description of the first autonomous ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean. But autonomy is not just for the future of the car and personal mobility but includes a broad autonomous future in areas such as Security Automation, Automation and the Workforce, Automation – or Augmentation – of the workforce, and Automation of AI/Machine Learning Training Models and Industry Standardization. 

We now tack to the familiar heavy industrial history of automation and global shipping port terminal operations, which have been the frontline in the tensions between labor, industry, and automation in the U.S. for decades.  Port automation is also prescient in the context of the recent pandemic-induced supply chain bottlenecks, which strained port operations globally:  “Terminal automation has helped to relieve severe supply chain congestion at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by substantially accelerating cargo handling and expanding terminal capacity while generating longshore work significantly faster than conventional terminals, according to a groundbreaking new study on port automation.” (1)

“The study “analyzes new public and previously unpublished data [and] was commissioned by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) during the Covid-19 pandemic – when a surge of Asian imports exposed severe shortcomings in the U.S. supply chain. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which process 40% of containerized imports from Asia, bore the brunt of this influx. They handled record levels of cargo, but backlogs – at times more than 100 ships anchored offshore awaiting berths – underscored the need for the country’s largest port complex to enhance terminal efficiency and productivity to accommodate growing container volumes and stanch the diversion of cargo to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports.” (3)  The study “analyzed automated terminals at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — the two busiest in the nation — and found that cargo handling was accelerated, terminal capacity was expanded and longshore work was generated “significantly faster” there than at conventional terminals.” (2)

Over the last 100 years, labor has always operated on the assumption that automation would contribute to the elimination of jobs and the number of (generally unionized) highly skilled, high-wage laborers working in port terminal operations.   Authors Dr. Michael Nacht, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense, and Larry Henry, Founder of ContainerTrac, Inc. in the report, Terminal Automation in Southern California,  place “automation in a broad context’ based on the attention automation has garnered recently, while also dispelling historical assumptions about the role of automation in job elimination and capturing some of the motivations behind OODA Loop research and analysis on the topic:

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Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira

Daniel Pereira is research director at OODA. He is a foresight strategist, creative technologist, and an information communication technology (ICT) and digital media researcher with 20+ years of experience directing public/private partnerships and strategic innovation initiatives.