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  • Allen Czermak

Can Innovative Logistical Solutions Solve The Supply Chain Crisis?

It’s been discussed for some time now but no one is certain that there is a solution for an overloaded global supply chain. Never before have we been so reliant on logistics to get the products we need to our homes and businesses. With the pandemic, worker shortages, and new coronavirus variants, major media outlets continue to report on issues with the supply chain and it appears as if there is no foreseeable solution in the near future. But what if there is a way to solve this problem by having shipping companies bring into their logistics strategies innovative ideas that can help run our global supply chain more efficiently? What if there was a way to automate the maritime element of our supply chain or at least to control it from afar? The concept is already being used by our military, as combat in the Middle East is executed from local war bases here in the United States. Why should it not be the same for our supply chain?

Meet The Yara Birkeland Autonomous Container Vessel

The Yara Birkeland is the world's first fully autonomous container vessel and can host up to 120 shipping containers. It has a max speed of 15 knots and can be automatically docked and set sail with its robotic arm. The control room or better known as the engine room is unmanned and operated by the aerospace company, Kongsberg Gruppen. It was on May 24, 2018 that the two companies paired up to develop the world's first fully-digitalized and zero emission cargo ship. The Yara Birkeland is set to go into commission this year and has already completed its first voyage within Norwegian waters, from Horten to Oslo on November 18, 2021.

Besides the vessel being a marvel in itself, the Yara Birkeland has brought a revolutionary element to the supply chain which is automation. Many shipping companies all around the world have incorporated robotics into their fulfillment centers, allowing items to be packaged and shipped without involving any human element. Amazon warehouses use people to pack the boxes but pretty much everything else is accomplished via robotics. Formerly known as Kiva Systems, Amazon Robotics manufactures its own set of logistic robots which can move up to 992 pounds in consumer goods while moving at 3 mph. This has assisted Amazon in being able to fulfill orders fast and efficiently making it one of the world's largest companies.

Bringing Automation Into Marine Logistics

Getting everyone on board with automating marine logistics definitely will be quite a challenge but our supply chain is screaming for it. Our water ports in the United States are pretty much functioning the same way they were functioning ten years ago and are not equipped to handle the load of container traffic coming in from the far east. On top of that, the ports are subjected to government and state policies that can weaken the workforce to keep it operating at a high level. If there is a path to having our container ships run on autopilot it may ease the workload on longshoremen allowing them to be used at work stations where they are needed most.

Only if the whole logistics process can be automated just like the way an Amazon fulfillment center is, that would bring the costs down and keep the supply chain running smoothly round the clock. Think about the process, an automated container vessel pulls into port and docks all by itself. Then a robotic crane begins to unload each container one by one, placing it in a designated area where the longshoremen can take it from there to be placed in a trailer chassis or rail car. This could be going on 24/7 as long as there is ample amount of space for them to spot the containers on dry land. The same process would be when containers are being loaded onto a ship. The robotic arm grabs the container and loads it into the designated spot on the ship. Every movement is tracked as containers get scanned and at the same time is overseen by humans. The idea is to free up an overloaded and overworked supply chain and robotics can be the answer.

The Challenge of Incorporating Automation Into The Marine Logistics Network

With every great idea comes a challenge. Convincing shipping companies to go automatic and updating their vessels is going to be quite an expense. Besides for the actual ships there is the technology element which they are going to have to partner or purchase from a company like Kongsberg Gruppen. Not everyone is going to be willing to do so as they are currently reaping the benefits of a supply chain in overdrive. As a matter of fact, it’s the maritime shipping companies that are doing quite well and their prices keep going up, well north of $25,000 per container that's being shipped from China. So it’s hard to imagine that they're going to want to come off the mounting pile of cash that they are currently sitting on.

The other challenge is that the size of the autonomous container ship Yara Birkeland is dwarfed in comparison to HMM Algeciras which can hold 23,964 TEU. Let’s put aside the cost of operating the vessels, the HMM Algeciras can hold 200 times more containers than that of the Yara Birkeland. Even with all the technology invested in autonomous container ships it will be hard to create one the size of the HMM Algeciras without any fuel powered engines. It will take a company like Tesla to create a container ship to omit the fuel from powering a large container ship and currently they have only made a small self-sustaining electric yacht.

Yara was inspired to bring change to the maritime shipping industry on two levels. The first is to make cargo ships fully autonomous and the second is that they run on zero emissions and are electric powered. Making behemoth ships fully electric is going to be a challenge for companies like Tesla but having them run automatically can be achieved even while being fuel powered. A Boeing 777 has the capacity to be turned on to autopilot and pilots will often have it land by itself. So why are pilots there in the first place? Perhaps it’s to make the passengers feel a bit more comfortable when being suspended 10,000 feet in the atmosphere. In theory, the technology is there to have big cargo ships and large planes run automatically, but it’s society that has to be ready to embrace the technology and it does not seem like we are there yet.

Digital Piracy Is Something To Think About

The good part about not having a crew is that the ship can flow through waters past countries like Somalia where pirates roam the seas. Every crew is equipped with a plan and weaponry in case they are attacked by unfriendly seafarers. In the worst case scenario the crew will lock itself in a safe room until a nearby navy responds to the vessel's distress signal.

But there is something which is becoming more frightening as we become more reliant on technology and that is the risk of having these systems hacked into by countries or individuals that are looking to inflict physical harm. Though we can avoid real pirates attacking these ship’s no one is certain that they can 100% avoid having digital pirates take control of them. With that being said it’s incumbent on the technology companies like Kongsberg Gruppen to guarantee that the software is safe and unbreachable from any party that seeks to inflict damage remotely.

Final Words

Our supply chain is in desperate need of an update and bringing automation to our local water ports will certainly be an upgrade. This will allow the longshoremen to be assigned to other areas that will keep the containers moving in and out of the port terminals at a faster pace. This will mean that as the large vessels come into dock, the cranes will unload and load the shipping containers automatically without any human element.

Fully autonomous container vessels like Yara Birkeland are innovative ideas that have been introduced to the maritime shipping community but are expensive and small. As for now these companies are quite happy with the great demand for shipping containers across the globe and have no reason to engage in an expensive idea with the many question marks that come with it. This is not to say that autonomous container ships should not be produced, it's just that they have to make economical sense and right now they don’t. Our planet craves climate friendly vessels but you are not going to convince the maritime logistic companies unless there is a way for them to make money from them. As soon as that happens and all the safety questions and concerns have been answered only then we will see autonomous container ships like the Yara Birkeland flow in and out of U.S. water ports.



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