Robotic cranes won't replace port workers

WHILE its biggest rivals are preparing to become automated container terminals, Felixstowe port bosses today announced they would not be employing robotic cranes on the quaysides.

Richard Cornwell

WHILE its biggest rivals are preparing to become automated container terminals, Felixstowe port bosses today announced they would not be employing robotic cranes on the quaysides.

It is good news for the beleaguered workforce - that in the immediate future the port will be looking to create more jobs.

At present, 170 quayside workers are being made redundant, but bosses have stressed this is only short-term because of the recession and expect to take on staff again once the economy picks up.

There are fears the port could be forced to embrace automation, which would curb job growth, because the new huge London Gateway development being built on the Thames will be fully automated - all cargo movements from ship to container yard.

There are worries about the new port - which will be able to handle 3.5 million containers a year - enticing some of Felixstowe's biggest customers to swap ports for cheaper deals. Its use of less manpower, any company's biggest cost, is another concern.

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Hutchison Ports has significant experience in automation, especially at Rotterdam, and its use at Felixstowe in future developments could never be ruled out.

Felixstowe county councillor Graham Newman said he was very concerned about what the future would hold.

Around 2,000 new homes were being planned in the area - mainly because of the possibility of several hundred new port jobs.

Mr Newman said people believed the port would grow forever and the staff numbers, too, but this was “manifestly not the case”.

He said there had already been an eight per cent reduction in jobs announced so far during the recession and there could be further cuts to come depending on how long the economy takes to recover.

In addition, new ports such as London Gateway and older ports like Hamburg were to be automated, running with few workers.

“It is my honest contention that if these developments take place, when the economy recovers, the Port of Felixstowe will be forced into taking exactly the same route and we will not have the jobs here,” he said.

Paul Davey, head of corporate affairs at Felixstowe port, said automation was not planned at the port at present - the new �240 million expansion currently taking place would have manually-driven cranes.

“We did consider automation as part of this project but concluded that was not the route we wanted to go at this moment,” he said.

- Is Felixstowe right to rely on the port for its future jobs? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail

ROBOTS can run car-making factories, and now they can operate ports.

Consultants behind the hi-tech remote-controlled cranes, which operate using number recognition cameras and GPS systems, say automation will increase productivity and cut costs.

DP World, which is building the London Gateway terminal, believes automatic cranes will be highly reliable and also able to work in higher wind speeds, cutting down on days lost through bad weather.

The cranes will be run remotely from a computer terminal and even vehicles on the complex will be unmanned.

Some port owners though are still sceptical over the huge amount of investment for the technology.

Greater flexibility in the use of port labour - which has been brought in at Felixstowe with portworkers now able to work on several different jobs in different parts of the port during a shift - has reduced the incentive to implement full automation.

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