18 Jun 2021

Auckland port's controversial automation system paused after another crash

From Checkpoint, 5:11 pm on 18 June 2021

The handbrake has gone on the Ports of Auckland's controversial automated system for unloading freight containers because of safety concerns.

On Thursday a giant robotic straddle carrier - which moves the shipping containers around - lost control and smacked one container into a stack of others.

Ports of Auckland said it was a software fault.

It is not the first time one of the large machines has gone rogue. In November, another one toppled over a retainer wall.

No one was hurt in the incident, but the port has now suspended use of the automated straddle carriers, pending further investigation.

It is yet another controversy for the beleaguered port, whose former chief executive Tony Gibson resigned following ongoing concerns over health and safety and three deaths in recent years.

In a statement, the port said it was now increasing its manual operation to keep freight moving.

"As far as we are aware, have been told by the Ports of Auckland, they had a software fault on the morning of the 17th, where a auto-straddle carrying a container hit another container," Maritime Union national secretary Craig Harrison told Checkpoint.

"Subsequent to that, they've turned the system off or shut the system down to identify what the fault was. At this stage I think they're trying to find the root cause and then see if they can scale it back to some form of operation. 

"An empty straddle for instance weighs 70 tonnes, and they've got a capacity to carry up a 40 tonnes. So you're talking a gross mass over 100 tonnes. So they're not small."

Harrison said the union had not been given much detail beyond the report of the carrier hitting a stack of containers.

"Until we understand more of what's happened, or the reason why, it's hard for us to understand what's gone wrong with it. We thought it was pretty close to being completely turned on... We thought they were ready to go.

"I think they made the right decision to turn it off. Management to their credit made the right decision to turn it off on safety grounds."

But he said the rollout of automation had been a long, ongoing challenge.

"This has been going on all through the year and I think the mayor has asked for dates when it's going to happen. It's just about the never-ending story at the moment, the way it keeps on going.

"I think they're at the stage now where the board has actually got an obligation to Aucklanders to say what the future of the port looks like in the coming months.

"As we start heading towards Christmas, I know it seems silly but they will start gearing up to start importing from about August on, business owners and Aucklanders have the right to know where it's going with the Ports of Auckland and if there's any contingency plans to get the place moving, to move that cargo across the wharf.

"Our union's having to work with the company to find a solution in the interim to get this freight moving again. But we can see that the congestion will mount until they solve this issue."

Harrison said he thinks manual operations can be scaled up with drivers, but it depends on what machines are available, as the non-automated ones have not been replaced.

"I think they'll be able to scale up. As to how much I couldn't really tell you because we haven't really got that much detail on that."

He said it was not just workers who needed answers but all Aucklanders.

"I think the chair of the board should be coming out with where they're at, what they're doing and what are the possible solutions.

"They need to lay out what's going on. The wider industry like the freight forwarders and people importing or exporting - they really need to know, is this going to be solved in weeks, days, months? They need to start making plans because if we look at what happened towards the end of last year there was some real hurt felt by, especially small businesses in the Auckland area."

Harrison hoped they would not see the same freight delays that happened at the end of 2020, but he said it was a possibility.

Checkpoint has sought comment from Ports of Auckland Management, the board and chair, but has received no response.

Auckland problems one of many globally - freight forwarding group 

Chris Edwards from Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Federation told Checkpoint "beleaguered" is the right word for the Ports of Auckland.

"They've had one bit of bad news after the other," he said.

Edwards said testing the automation in a working environment was highly challenging.

"Getting stuff into New Zealand at the moment is so problematic ... congestion in southern China, all sorts of things.

"Manual work is absolutely necessary in getting these containers off. And the poor old truckies waiting at the port for too much longer - they won't appreciate it either."

Edwards said it was a 'whack-a-mole' supply chain, and problems at the Ports of Auckland was just one of many issues globally.