Rotterdam – the port of the future

The port of Rotterdam is Europe’s largest seaport. Last year it handled 466m tonnes of cargo, more than double the amount of Europe’s second port, Antwerp. The endless shifts in the size and composition of these flows provide an instant indicator of the state of the world economy. And the trends that are transforming the port’s operations—automation and the shift away from fossil fuels—give a sense of the future too.

Thanks to its easy access for big ships from the Atlantic and for barges from the interior, Rotterdam has been Europe’s dominant port for much of modern history.

The port has been evolving in sympathy with the global economy. In the mid-20th century, new handling and storage facilities for oil and chemicals were built to cater to the post-war boom. As globalisation gathered pace in the 1990s and 2000s, the port expanded further into the sea, to provide berths for the mega-ships bringing sneakers and flat screens from Asia to Europe.

Activity at the port today bears witness to four trends currently shaping the world economy: the low price of oil, slow growth in China and emerging markets, the sluggish euro-area recovery and the global slowdown in manufacturing and trade.

Some people see “near-shoring” to places like Turkey as a sign that globalisation is ebbing. All this can clearly be felt in Rotterdam, where one in four containers originates in China. Bart Kuipers of Erasmus University argues that a number of trends all push in the same direction: less container traffic. Economies are shifting from industry to services; advances in logistics and technology, such as near-shoring and 3-D printing, are making it more practical to manufacture things in the rich world; recycling drives are sapping the incentive to import.

Rotterdam provides also much more conclusive evidence of another trend that will shape the world economy: automation. Earlier this year its crane-drivers, often referred to as “the kings of the terminal”, went on a 24-hour strike that paralysed large parts of the port for the first time in 13 years. They were protesting against competition from robots.

In 2013 the opening of “Maasvlakte 2” was welcomed as a feat of engineering not just because it made the Netherlands 20km² (8 square miles) bigger, but also because its new “ghost” terminals run with almost no human intervention. Crane-drivers have been replaced by “remote crane operators”, who sit in a distant office in front of computer screens, using joysticks to control as many as three cranes at once. The cranes lift containers onto self-driving, battery-powered automated guided vehicles (AGVs), which deliver them to stacks to be distributed by truck, train or barge. When their batteries run out, the AGVs drive to a depot where robots remove the spent ones and insert replacements. Humans’ main role is to stay out of the way; an AGV is about as heavy as a small aircraft and the whole system shuts down if any unexpected people or vehicles enter the terminal. APM Terminals, which operates part of Maasvlakte 2, hopes each crane will be able to move over 40 containers per hour in this way, compared with 30 or so in less advanced facilities. That cuts shipping times, saving lots of money. It is also far safer and, as one shipping executive notes, “Robots don’t take breaks or strike.” Sensing mortal danger to their livelihoods, workers are threatening more strikes unless the management promises to preserve their jobs and salaries.

Another area of evolution concerns how the new parts of the port are powered. The AGVs and cranes in the new terminals are all electric, and an increasing number of windmills and solar panels provide much of the power the port consumes. All this reduces emissions of greenhouse gases, in keeping with increasingly restrictive European rules. The port is also investing in all sorts of climate-friendly experiments, from using residual heat from industry to warm homes and offices in the city to storing carbon under the seabed.

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