Training – but what for, exactly?

Jebel Ali control room. Credit: DP World

Ports will need to think differently about how they attract talent, and the skills and experience personnel will need as automation becomes further entrenched in operations

Many have complained about the relative lack of new blood coming into shipping in recent times, but one of the foremost areas of concern is what to do with them when they do arrive. Poised on the brink of an imminent digitalisation – at present, equally certain to arrive as it is nearly impossible to define – what exactly should ports be training their newest hires to do?

In February 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) highlighted the story of Majed Al Wawi, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee in Germany. He had first enrolled in Hamburger Hafen und Logistik AG’s (HHLA’s) vocational training programme for engineers. Quick to gain a proficiency in the German language, Al Wawi was granted a place on the logistics and transport company’s programme in mid-2019, after serving a series of internships within the port. He is currently learning the role of mechatronics engineering, which comprise mechanical, electrical, and computer training.

Al Wawi, now fully enrolled in the three-year training course, said, “That first day was astonishing, I was really motivated … it was always my dream to work with big machines; the bigger the machine, the more fun it is to operate. All the staff are so nice to me and friendly – it’s a lot of fun.”

Complex maintenance

The more promising candidates from HHLA’s training course will be taken on as permanent employees. Each permanent role will involve maintaining the company’s rail-mounted gantries as well as the ship-to-shore (STS) cranes across its network of three Port of Hamburg terminals. These include three new Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries (ZPMC) STS cranes at Hamburg’s Container Terminal Burchardkai, which were delivered in November 2019 on heavy-lift vessel Zhen Hua 27. Capable of a 26-container-wide reach, the cranes have replaced three smaller models, now dismantled, and are soon to be joined by another two ZPMC cranes within the first quarter.

Ultimately, it is a relatively new sort of training. The recruits will be learning to program and maintain new types of computer systems, which will automate the port’s processes and resolve exceptions in the system as and when they crop up. The job is getting more complicated; in 2018, more than 150 vessels ranging between 18,000 and 22,000 teu called at the port, forming an increase of some 47%. This trend continued to increase in the first half of 2019.

Digital pioneers

Elsewhere, HHLA is training its staff members to become pilots of the future, as part of an initiative that began in December 2019 to help equip employees with the capability to respond nimbly to changes in organisational structure brought about by digitalisation.

The training is in line with the German government’s law for qualification opportunities and is being implemented by the Federal Employment Agency’s (BA’s) Hamburg office. The qualification programme will, according to HHLA’s website, teach candidates the art of “thinking, acting, and leading digitally”, with the aim of applying these principles to new projects and working at the front line on new digital initiatives at the port.

“The pilots for the future will act at important interfaces within the group to safeguard HHLA’s successful digital transformation and sustainable development,” said Torben Seebold, the company’s chief human resources officer. “The digital transformation is changing jobs and creating new ones. We will only be able to face the ever-more complex challenges in a prompt and flexible manner with the help of qualified staff members who are open to new ideas and complete their tasks with courage and a sense of responsibility.”

HHLA invested approximately EUR4.6 million (USD5.1 million) in training its Hamburg employees in 2018 and looks set to continue the trend. The BA is also making a generous financial contribution to the scheme: covering wages over the course of the training and subsidising the cost of courses.

“Companies based in Hamburg must also constantly prove their competitiveness in a market that is becoming more and more global,” said Sönke Fock, chairman of the board of the BA office in Hamburg. “At the same time, employees must face new challenges in the work process.”

Jebel Ali. Credit: DP World

He later added, “Operations, administration, and work processes, and therefore almost all employees, will have to face digital changes in ever-shorter intervals. Career profiles will not disappear, but will change considerably. Therefore, professional training during active employment is the decisive key for the successful implementation of the structural change.

Accordingly, the Federal Employment Agency in Hamburg supports local companies.”
Hamburg is not the only port taking a lead on training or implementing new types of training which will be required for ports to manage the digital transition in the coming decades.
Simulating exceptions

The Dubai hub Port of Jebel Ali, operated by DP World, has consistently taken a forward-thinking stance on staffing its terminals since the 2010s. Taking successive leaps in automation with each of the new container terminals it opens up, most of its operations at Terminal 3 are centralised in a nearby terminal building, where exceptions and interruptions to the automated STS, rubber-tyred gantry (RTG), and vehicle workflow are handled by a team of operatives. Many of these operatives are women – a markedly international and forward-thinking approach for the region.

The decision to cancel the development of Terminal 4 – let alone Terminal 5, discussed only in hushed tones by the port’s staff – is on hold, thanks to a slowdown in growth demand due to the ongoing trade war between China and the United States.

DP World reported contracting container volumes at Jebel Ali in 2019, with full-year volumes having decreased by 5.6% to 14.1 million teu. UAE throughput overall was down, and in mid-February 2020, the group’s CEO, Sultan Bin Sulayem, blamed that loss on low-margin throughput.

“We remained focused on high-margin cargo and maintaining profitability,” he added.
Terminal 1 is currently undergoing a refit before commencing upgrading its automation and throughput to the standards of Terminal 3, therefore DP World has elected to use Terminal 4 for spillover cargo only.

“While the intention was that this [Terminal 4] was supposed to take in new cargo, given the current slowdown in the market place, we will use this opportunity to refurbish Terminal 1 … and move some of the cargo to Terminal 4,” said Yuvraj Narayan, DP World Group’s chief financial officer, in early 2019.

To train its operators, Jebel Ali is using simulators developed by Canadian company CM Labs. The company agreed to a partnership with DP World in 2017, and rolled out a suite of Vortex port equipment simulators, covering training on pedestal crane, yard tractor, forklift, and empty container handling.

Each Vortex simulator incorporates a complete model of two busy Jebel Ali terminals, allowing personnel to practise their tasks in a risk-free environment, without impacting on throughput or asset usage at the port.

Worst-case scenarios

In October 2019, CM Labs launched two port equipment-related products: an update to its Vortex STS-crane training pack and the Mobile Harbour Crane Simulator (MHC Simulator) training pack.

The Vortex STS-crane training platform comprises a workstation that mocks up a crane cabin, including a chair incorporating the various controls and switches. If desired, the point-of-view camera can be repositioned by the instructor with a standard gaming joypad.

The STS simulation suite is designed to train users to operate cranes in a variety of situations and working with 20-, 40-, and 45-feet spreaders as well as twin 20-feet containers. The simulator includes operational flippers and twist locks; it also manages chain lifts, a personnel platform, and an over-height frame. Meanwhile, modern processing allows for realistic physics and accurate simulation of cables, full and empty containers, and breakbulk loads.

Meanwhile, the MHC Simulator was developed to train users for “complex lift trajectories, compromised views, and unexpected equipment failures”, according to CM Labs on its website. This software is for trainees to practise operations in extreme scenarios that would be unsafe for them in real life, such as in cases of major vessel movement, and to prepare for real-life emergency situations. For example, users can learn to navigate through critical situations such as crane faults, offering a level of safety prior to the advent of realistic simulations.

Shifting methods

In mid-2019, CM Labs delivered a Vortex simulator to North Carolina Ports, comprising a training software programme for reach stackers and STS cranes. The training system has been judged necessary for passing on the port’s existing knowledge and expertise to the next-generation operators.

“The addition of the CM Labs Vortex Port Equipment Simulator is an important component of North Carolina Ports’ long-term improvements plan,” said Brian E Clark, North Carolina Ports’ chief operating officer. “The simulator serves as a critical training tool for current and future employees, allowing us to better prepare our employees for the cargoes of today and tomorrow by keeping in mind our core focus of safety, speed, and efficiency.”

The simulator could also be used to train on a ship pedestal crane, forklift, RTG, MHC, reach stacker, or empty container handler, thanks to its ‘hot-swappable’ control inputs. “The multisensory experience, in tandem with true-to-life operating scenarios and best-practice guidance, has demonstrated its capacity to produce more productive operators than live equipment training alone can provide,” said CM Labs product manager Seza Kouladjian.

Following its earlier success with DP World, in 2018 CM Labs signed an agreement with ZPMC to develop custom Vortex simulation to train staff to operate cranes using a remote desktop interface – by far the most likely scenario for the future of the market. Unlike the cabin version with a realistic out-of-the-window view, the customised ZPMC system features simulated camera displays and replicates all of the automated safety functions of a real remotely operated, part-automated crane, as well as the wider terminal management system.

Back then in 2018, ZPMC Smart Solutions Group’s vice general manager, Zhao Bin, pointed to the rising prevalence of remotely operated systems and the increasing need for training.
“Remote crane operations are gaining popularity in container terminals as an alternative that improves safety, operating ergonomics, and operator productivity,” Zhao said. “We see enormous growth in remote desk STS operations as well as demand for training.”

If direct control is to give way to remote management and operators of port equipment are set to become desk jockeys, HHLA and CM Labs are working to ensure these ports possess effective training, allowing them to plan for all manner of emergency scenarios. This will be essential as more terminals are subject to a greater degree of automation, ensuring that the humans tasked with intervening when things go wrong are properly equipped to do so when the time comes.