Design of the State Ports Authority's future Navy base terminal was sketched years ago to have the North Charleston site mirror the older container cargo facilities in the region.

But that soon could change. The state maritime agency has asked a consulting firm to review if the new $700 million terminal should incorporate more automation, falling in line with a global trend that replaces some of the dockside tasks with remote controls.

Engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff is studying the potential changes to the design of the 280-acre container facility, which is scheduled to open in 2018 at the south end of the former Navy base.

"The reality is we have to make use of very scarce resources, and that's land, and we have to use that in the most efficient way we can," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the SPA. "There are new ways of doing that than when we built (the) Wando (Welch Terminal in Mount Pleasant) and when we designed the Navy base terminal."

The very idea of automation raises concern from the International Longshoremen's Association, which fears the move could cost jobs.

"I'm not going to embrace the type of technology that will eliminate jobs," said Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422 in Charleston.

Newsome said any changes to the design of the Navy base terminal would have to be approved by the ILA and other groups.

"At this point, we are studying the potential for automation of the Navy base terminal as a potential way to improve utilization of scarce land," he said. "All impacts will be evaluated prior to any decisions on this subject."

Mark Sisson, a port specialist at the consulting firm AECOM, said ports invest in automation because of basic economics.

"The number one reason for automation is to save on operating costs," he said.

Bill Mongelluzzo, senior editor at The Journal of Commerce, a trade publication, agrees.

"The purpose of automation is it reduces labor costs and you can push a lot more volume through the same footprint," he said.

Sisson added that automation is merely the latest means to reduce costs to ship containers. In other cost-cutting measures, some companies are slowing their vessels to maximize fuel while others are shifting to larger, more fuel-efficient ships.

Another reason automation is gaining in popularity is tied to the mega-sized cargo ships that will be able to navigate the expanding Panama Canal in the not-so-distant future. That will require ports to be smarter about how they use their shoreside real estate.

Denser docks

Automation already is a staple of container yards in densely populated areas of Asia and Europe. In addition to labor cost savings, it enables ports to store more containers by stacking them higher and closer together, experts say.

"Terminal automation really has the main advantage of making better use of scarce land," the SPA's Newsome said. "You can make the terminal footprint more dense in terms of stacking capabilities."

The trend can be seen at some new facilities in the United States. Those include some terminals taking shape on the West Coast and at the APM Terminals Virginia, a privately owned 291-acre container yard that opened in 2007 in Portsmouth.

The $450 million APM Terminal opened with 30 semi-automated, rail-mounted gantry yard cranes that can be operated with remote controls. Manned vehicles move containers from dockside to the head of the yard.

Terminals have traditionally used rubber-tired gantry cranes to stack containers once the cargo is unloaded from the ship. Those lifting devices are controlled by operators sitting in overhead cabins.

Newsome said the Navy base terminal could possibly switch to rail-mounted gantry cranes instead. Those would be staggered and wider. They also would open up more space for container storage because they eliminate the need for truck lanes between the stacks.

"One of our main objectives is to improve terminal utilization," Newsome said. "That's through densifying terminals."

Another idea being considered is a centralized gate operations center. That would allow ILA clerks and checkers, who direct trucks in and out of the local port terminals, to work from a remote location instead of at each individual entrance.

Volume-driven

Automation doesn't make sense for every port since it requires high upfront costs that must provide a return on investment, Mongelluzzo of the Journal of Commerce said.

"Automation is a decision that each terminal makes. They have to look at the cost benefit and see if this will produce enough benefit to offset cost," he said. "At the end of the day, it comes down to volume."

Sisson of AECOM said automation is becoming inevitable within the shipping industry, just as containerization replaced stacks of loose cargo in the 1950s to become the primary way ocean-going cargo is transported.

He said the savings from automation can make ports more competitive with the rates they charge.

"Shipping is a commodity business, and the Walmarts of the world care about the low prices," he said. "That's why you have giant ships, and that's why you have automated terminals to run with less labor costs."

Sisson added that Charleston could be forced to incorporate automation if it wants to succeed at taking marketshare from its rivals, including the APM Terminals in Virginia.

"Charleston is competing with them for the same cargo," he said. "You have a cost advantage with automation, and that is hard to overcome."

The ILA union isn't convinced, saying jobs should be the priority. Riley, the Local 1422 president, said other terminals that have switched to automated cargo handling technology have cut their employment numbers.

"I've witnessed firsthand what happens when you go for rail-mounted gantry and remotely operated. ... I have seen how it decreased the workforce, and I am not for that," he said.

Riley also said the idea is ill-timed, noting that the region's jobless rate still hasn't returned to pre-recession levels.

"Any automation is adding density to the unemployment numbers," he said. "We should be looking at how to generate more jobs."

Riley also noted that the Port of Charleston is one of the productive ports in the country.

"We are talking about doing this for density, and I think that's a trade-off that is not too great," he said.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 or twitter.com/tyrichardsonPC.