Longshoreman vs. Automation: What to Know
Published by : Industrial Automation
Can robots replace humans? In traditional warehousing and stock handling, the answer is not yet, says David Madden.
With the general rise of automation in all sectors of the workforce, it should come as no surprise that the longshoreman’s job is at risk. The unfortunate truth is that longshoreman jobs are particularly vulnerable to a robot takeover for a variety of reasons. According to the website, ‘Will Robots Take My Job?’, freight labourers and material handlers at large have an 85 per cent probability of automation, threatening some 2.5 million jobs. But these (admittedly daunting) numbers don’t take the whole picture into consideration. In reality, the number is probably much lower. That’s because the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) – the biggest and most significant union advocating for dock workers – has vowed to put some protections in place against automation. Ports do not want to upset the union, as strikes can equal millions of dollars lost in a relatively short period of time.
What are automated terminals?
If you’ve ever worked on a cargo ship or in the shipyard, you know that there are millions of working parts ensuring that a job runs smoothly. So how could a machine take over, with all of those components to consider? Automated cargo ships are equipped with interlocking containers, which are stowed and discharged using giant, shoreside cranes featuring automatic hook-release devices. These cranes do not require human operation. Several different machines are now available to unload and load cargo ships without humans. Different types of automated cranes – automated stacking cranes (ASC cranes) and ship-to- shore gantry cranes (STS cranes) operated by remote controls – do the heavy lifting without a human behind the wheel. Other terminals use automated container-handling operations that transport, stack and track shipping containers with high-tech, robotic equipment.
What’s more, the most cutting-edge, automated cargo ships are also equipped with features such as automatic lashing equipment (thereby eliminating the need for lashers on deck) and driverless trucks that can transport cargo in smaller loads. Technologies such as laser scanners allow the terminal to operate even in complete darkness, which has helped to reduce terminals’ labour costs by up to 70 per cent while boosting efficiency by 30 per cent.
Why longshoremen jobs are at risk
First and foremost, longshoremen are historically well-paid – they’re hard workers, of course, and they have the longshoremen’s union to thank for their good wages – and automation is much cheaper. For many ports, reducing costs is objective number 1. Therefore, from a financial perspective, it makes sense to invest in machines that can do the same jobs that humans can, especially if they can do it faster and with less risk. Obviously, robots can’t go on strike (at least not yet) so there is some serious incentive for ports to implement fully- and semi-automated terminals. The other primary benefit of automating terminals is that it’s safer. Longshoremen jobs are notoriously dangerous. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job historically holds an average of 10 injuries for every 100 workers. Most of these injuries come from operating heavy machinery and dealing with large, dangerous containers – two things the modern-day worker wouldn’t have to face in a fully-automated terminal setting.
As obvious as it may seem, it’s important to point out that, for employers, workplace injuries are costly and can leave companies liable in litigation. And, with strong union backing of workers in this industry, there’s major financial incentive to reduce workplace injuries. When robots do the manual labour – driving the cranes, packing the pallets and tying down containers, for example – there’s much less risk for injury. Additionally, many automated freight ships are equipped with zero-emissions machines, which make operations significantly more eco-friendly than before. And then there’s the efficiency factor. We’ve already covered that terminal automation equals measurable gains in that department, too. The fact of the matter is, machines work faster and more efficiently than humans do. Manufacturers of high-tech, automated crane systems claim that fully automated versions eliminate the unsafe and inefficient handoff process. They also tout the fact that their terminal automation machines never get tired or bored.
Fully-automated terminals: can they replace humans?
So now that we know for a fact that automation is appealing to ports, can we deduce that they’ll eventually totally replace humans? No. In fact, according to the book “Singlejack Solidarity” by Stain Weir, humans will always be needed to load and unload cargo from freight ships, but fewer human workers will be needed. So how many longshoremen, exactly, will be out of a job with the rise of the robotic workforce?
“By the end of an extended contract in 2022, several thousand longshore jobs will be eliminated on an annual basis due to automation,” says Ed Ferris, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) 10 in San Francisco. Longshoremen union leaders have continued to use the depressive state of the steel industry to demonstrate what’s at stake in their realm. The cold, hard facts are that 10,000 of ILWU’s contingent workers receive work less often today than they did in 2008. However, other leaders believe that terminal automation could be redesigned to facilitate work by robots and humans. This would preserve jobs within the current workforce while also helping to make terminal processes more efficient and cost-effective. But there’s no way around it, a portion of longshoremen are likely to lose their jobs in every scenario. There’s no way of knowing how fast or how soon ports will begin to fully automate.
But the question still persists: Can robots replace humans? In traditional warehousing and stock handling, the answer is not yet. But warehouses have changed – automated pickers and palletisers requiring automation-friendly shipping containers, software, and machinery are now the norm – and so have warehouse roles. If we’re looking at that industry as an example, we can expect workers to see significant changes in their day-to-day lives. In other words, if you’re one of the longshoremen who outlives automation, there’s a good chance that your job will be less physically demanding and safer in the future. For the time being, though, real, human workers are still required on the frontlines of the shipping port.
David Madden, Founder & President, Container Exchanger, is an efficiency expert. His passion and business is to save companies money through the use of used reusable and repurposed industrial packaging such as plastic and metal bulk containers, gaylord boxes, bulk bags, pallets, IBC totes, and industrial racks. He holds an MBA as well as a certificate from Daimler Chrysler Quality Institute for completion of six-sigma black belt training.