They are some of the world's most important pieces of our global supply chain. However, one of the biggest problems currently facing the industry is labour; disruptions at world ports quadruple as discontent grows. Finding reliable workers is a problem for seemingly every industry since COVID-19. Shipping hubs from Europe to Asia are experiencing major staffing problems.
Tianjin Port which is one of the most important in the global supply chain is located 60 kilometres away from down-town Tianjin, a coastal metropolis south-east of Beijing. It maintains trade with more than 500 ports across more than 180 countries around the globe. But there is something absolutely different in Terminal C in Tianjin. On the surface, it looks like any other shipping harbour filled with cranes and containers. But instead of workers, this terminal is operated by fully automated computers using 5G cloud computing, AI and robots. This is the world’s first smart, zero-carbon port terminal.
Smart ports require only 25 per cent of the human workforce of a traditional port. Most of these employees are located in offices and simply manage the entire port’s operation through their computer screens. Due to the automation, the port has saved millions in labour costs, but this also provides other huge benefits. Most ports around the world still rely on manual scheduling. This requires hours of manual planning. However an AI computer can do the entire operation in just a few minutes. The automated system of the Tianjin Port can process up to 36 containers per hour compared to only 28 containers per hour at a conventional terminal. With the Tianjin Port processing more than 21 million cargo containers a year, this is a substantial increase in port efficiency.
Another advantage in building a smart port is the reduction in errors and increase in safety. A traditional port has over 800 workers and most accidents in traditional ports are the result of human error. But the Tianjin smart port doesn’t have a single person on the ground.
This port is the first in the world to combine 5G and level 4 autonomous driving together in a large-scale commercial operation and now the Tianjin Port is ready to export its successful model across the globe.
Huawei, China's leading tech company, has come under intense pressure from US sanctions in recent years and because of these sanctions Huawei is pivoting to new industries. This project in Tianjin has become a new priority for the company, which is now seeking to tap into a global smart port market that is expected to reach 11.5 billion dollars by 2030. Huawei is conducting innovation programmes and trials of 5G applications in major ports, including Guangzhou Port, Tianjin Port, Qingdao Port and Ningbo-Zhoushan Port. Yang Jie Min, Vice President of the Tianjin Port Group recently said: “These innovations being used at the port of Tianjin are having a huge impact on the port industry, creating new value for ports by improving operating environments, driving green and low-carbon development, and increasing operational efficiency. We believe that these practices will promote the intelligent development of the global port industry.”
The author is a foreign policy journalist