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Automatic twistlock handling - what are the possibilities?

Stack of different colors containers secured on the ship and lashes with lashing bars, turnbuckles and twist locks.

Automatic twistlock handling - what are the possibilities?

Interview by Prof. Dr. Holger Schütt with Rainer Kapelski from KALP GmbH and Michael Nagel-Kugler from AKQUINET

Automation in the container terminal sector has picked up speed significantly in recent years. In addition to process automation through IT systems, the equipment used for handling and transport is also being increasingly automated. A study by PIANC "WG 208: Planning for Automation of Container Terminals" from 2021 contains a list in the appendix of 80 terminals worldwide that are semi-automated (storage only) or fully automated (storage and horizontal transport) or are under construction.

But even at the fully automated terminals, there are still processes that are operated manually worldwide, including twistlock handling, where the corner connectors between the containers are removed.


Rainer, we have known each other for more than 15 years now. During this time you have dealt with these processes in great detail. Why don't you tell us how you came to deal with this topic?

Rainer: From 1991 onwards, I worked in the port of Hamburg alongside my training as a ship's service technician and, among other things, I also did lashing. At that time we were still climbing up and down containers to lay out or collect the twistlocks. In this context, I was already thinking about automating twistlock handling. Semi-automatic twistlocks (SATLs) were introduced in the mid-1990s because it was no longer allowed to stand on container stacks in the USA and Australia. SATLs are mostly operated on floating containers.

Since about 2000, I then drove straddle carriers and sat (mostly on night shift) up to 16m above the working area of the lashers that crossed my path. This work area is very dangerous and additionally time consuming. In 2006-2009 I finally developed a prototype of an automatic lashing platform and presented it in the port in 2010.


Michael, we also met in this context a few years ago. What drove you to get involved with twistlock handling?

Michael: I know twistlock handling first-hand from my time as a sailor on board container ships and had to handle it a lot. I also did some of the lashing myself, sorted the twistlocks in the gearboxes, repaired them and so on. I was always amazed that such an inconspicuous process is so essential for container transport. As part of a publication, I then researched the topic to find out why automation has not yet arrived here across the board.


So this is not just about a machine, but rather about the handling processes and their process environment. What makes these processes so special and what needs to be paid particular attention to here?

Rainer, what do you think are the main drivers for supporting automation for these processes?

Rainer: Today, heavy machinery works together with manual processes. For example, a crane operator sits at a height of 60 m and below him two people are working by hand on a floating container - or the container is on a platform, but the crane operator does not have a complete overview of where the people are. The container can also be placed on a cornerless chassis, here the lashers then work in the driver's blind spot.

All these processes are dangerous and time-consuming.

Ship sizes have increased by 300% in the last 15-20 years, with more or less the same productivity. Increasing containerisation has reduced the number of staff in the ports and made them more expensive due to a high degree of organisation. Furthermore, long lay times lead to high levels of air pollution from the ships.

By automating the twistlock handling, the process time in this step can be set close to zero, depending on the horizontal transport, which makes a crane productivity increase of more than 20% possible. Personnel can be saved or better deployed and emissions can be reduced.


Michael, from your perspective as a seaman, who mainly sees these processes from the ship, what else can you add here?

Michael: From the crew's point of view, the most important thing is to have all twistlocks back on board at the end and that the containers are correctly lashed. Especially when loading the ship, this often led to delays because the wrong twistlock types were on the container or even missing. Twistlocks from other ships are also often found on the container at once, which are not permitted according to the lashing plan.

Maintenance of the twistlocks is also difficult. On smaller ships (2,500 TEU) I still "mended" SATLs myself. On larger units, with the same crew size, this is no longer possible. The technical condition and the sheer number of different twistlock types thus pose one of the biggest challenges to automation.



Michael, you looked at different systems in your master's thesis. From your point of view, why has no solution prevailed to date? Are the processes perhaps too special to be automated? Where do you see the biggest obstacles?

Michael: One of the main reasons is certainly that new technologies always establish themselves relatively slowly in the port environment. Here it is always important for the user, i.e. the terminal, not to be the first and to already be able to see references from other terminals. So we are talking about a typical chicken-and-egg problem.

Likewise, it is always a question of investment, also with regard to automation. At what point does the automation of these processes pay off? What resistance can be expected from the port workers? Will possible savings be worthwhile, and if so, when?

These are all questions that a terminal must consider in detail. Especially when other investments, such as new Quay Cranes for larger vessels, may seem more important.

Technologically, there are several concepts that deal with automating the lashing process, although they differ significantly in their robustness and mechanical implementation. Here, terminals are looking for a variant that guarantees maximum robustness & reliability, while in no way having a negative impact on the operation. In the end, lashing is just one process of many on a container's journey, but one that may be a little more difficult to automate than others. In the long run, however, terminals will not be able to avoid automating this last, manual step.


Rainer, do you dare to forecast how this topic will develop? Where will we be in 5, 10 or 20 years? Will twistlock handling be safer and more automated than it is today?

Rainer: As soon as one terminal adopts this technology, others will follow. Large shipping companies are taking on the twistlock process and standardising their twistlock diversity.

We are already developing a check function for the quality of the twistlocks to exclude a loss due to defective twistlocks.

In 5-10 years, it will no longer be appropriate to do manual work under the crane. It will also be difficult to find enough flexible staff for this job in the future.


Thank you very much for your insights into this special but also highly interesting topic. There is still a lot to do here. Especially from my university days as a professor for the Master's programme "Integrated Safety and Security Management", I hope that these processes will become safer.

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