The future docked at the Port of Long Beach earlier this month.

The ship itself wasn’t that notable – super-size vessels won’t regularly start calling on the local ports for several months yet. But the automated systems that offloaded its cargo as part of a $1.3 billion rethinking of the modern terminal could have a profound impact on operations, labor, and the environment around the port complex.

The nine-year Middle Harbor Terminal Redevelopment Project, now nearing the end of its first phase, will join the TraPac Terminal at the Port of Los Angeles as the most technologically advanced facilities on the West Coast.

Now in the testing phase, the state-of-the-art facility is expected to speed the loading and offloading process by using robots to help transfer cargo from ships to trucks. Port officials declined to comment on the opening, preferring to wait until after the tests.

Union officials were unavailable for comment, though automation is bound to impact their ranks.

“Any time you can replace people with machines, you have a chance of some significant cost savings,” said Jock O’Connell, an international trade analyst for Westchester’s Beacon Economics. “You don’t have to pay machines pensions. They don’t have to take breaks or time off for lunch, and they can operate 24 hours a day and seven days a week.”

Investing in automated machinery to boost productivity will allow savings on labor, according to Mark Sisson, a senior port planner for Century City construction and engineering giant Aecom.

“The labor in Long Beach is the most expensive terminal labor in the world,” he said. “If you can automate it, the business becomes really compelling.” 

Robots won’t completely replace human workers, but in the long run, less labor will be needed, Sisson said.

Testing times

The first vessel to dock at the terminal, operated by Orient Overseas Container Line and its subsidiary, Long Beach Container Terminal, under a 40-year, $4.6 billion lease, was offloaded by remote-controlled cranes that loaded driverless trucks that produce 50 percent less emissions than traditional vehicles.

The 300-acre terminal will ultimately have ship-to-shore cranes capable of lifting two 40-foot containers at once. Two older docks at the site have been combined, allowing the reconstituted terminal to handle up to 3.3 million 20-foot container units annually. That’s equal to nearly half of last year’s volume at the Port of Long Beach.

There is an expectation that automation could ease congestion at the port, where logjams in 2014 and last year paralyzed the movement of goods and hurt warehouse operators and retailers across the region.

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