Building the perfect terminal

From computer-simulated design trials to fully automated cranes that learn and communicate, APM Terminals’ new container terminal in Maasvlakte II in the Port of Rotterdam is being built and operated with data.  

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Terminal assistant Rene Heij (yellow hat) and a truck driver load a chassis of one of the 37 automated guided vehicles (AGV's) on to a truck.


Rik Geurtsen has a pretty good idea of what Maasvlakte II (MVII) will be capable of once it opens for business on 1 November. He has already seen it in action – and dozens of versions of it – on a computer screen.

“We started with the productivity target and other factors we knew like vessel size and vessel type that would call at the terminal as well as expected delays, and from there we can play around with yard layouts and different equipment,” says Geurtsen, Senior Project Manager for Operations at the new terminal.

Computer simulations were carried out over the last six years by a specialist company, which allowed APM Terminals to test the integrity of the fully automated concept in a variety of scenarios in a realistic peak-type work situation.

“Without simulations, we would only have our assumptions. It gives us a way to see how it performs before we begin an expensive and time-consuming construction,” says Geurtsen. “Of course, it cannot be made perfect on a computer, but it gives us a necessary degree of confidence in the design.”

Perfection is in the data

If productivity slows during the day at a typical terminal, multiple factors could be involved, from equipment problems, changes in vessel schedules to human crane drivers stopping to open a soft drink or tie a shoelace.

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APM Terminals – rail mounted robots. 0:54

That is a far smaller problem here. The 27 rail-mounted gantry cranes and their smaller assistants, the 36 steel-bed-like vehicles that carry containers between the ship and yard, are equipped with GPS and Transponder-based tracking, and the ongoing communication between the machines and computer systems is logged.

“We have all the data. With constant location and operational instructions-related data streaming between the machines and our systems, we have that granularity and transparency to get to the root of any problem,” says William Rengelink, Technical Integration Manager for the project.

Sifting through terabytes

And all of that back and forth communication will be stored in two nearby data centres, each the size of a large meeting room, consisting of eight server racks.

This is a treasure trove for the future Process Excellence department, and the project team of 40 operations and IT specialists. With it they will be able to work their way through every performance failure that happens every day to find the cause.

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Rail mounted gantry cranes. 0:54

For example, if a crane waits ten seconds for an AGV, it is ten seconds of unproductive activity. Why was it late? Was it due to a system issue or was the stacking not optimal?

“Having all the data doesn’t mean it’s going to be easier to get high performance from the terminal, but it does make it easier to identify the causes of poor performance,” says Rengelink.

“Improving it from there is a different challenge because we may have to fix systems or reprogramme a vehicle or interview a crane operator or all of the above. But no doubt having the data gives us a huge advantage for reaching our targets.”

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APM Terminals – Jan Peeman talks about his new job. 2:09

Seeing is believing

  • Before they were installed in the terminal, the simulation of MVII proved the value of two key pieces of equipment: the Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) that transport containers between the stacks and the vessel, and the ship-to-shore cranes with the extra mini crane at the bottom and the ability to lift two containers at once.
  • It also answered other questions, like the most efficient arrangement of the container stacks (perpendicular, not parallel to the quay) as well as the best location for the reefer containers (the centre of the yard).

The human element

  •  A total of 12 important pieces of equipment in the yard will be operated by humans at MVII: the eight giant ship-to-shore cranes and the two rail and barge cranes. The large cranes will have remote operators in the nearby office and the rail and barge cranes will have on-board drivers.