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Shanghai’s fiber-networked smart port lets dock hands move cargo, from a city office

(May 2023) One of the downsides of working at a container terminal is the location. In large cities, shipping harbors are often off in the boondocks, far from the city center.  The long commute can put off people from seeking employment there.

Not only that, but it’s not always a nice occupation.  Day (or night shifts) are often spent standing outdoors, exposed to the elements and the risk of being hit by a truck or mishandled container. Crane operators, meanwhile, have to climb up several flights of stairs to get to their work station.  And while they’re up there in their cabin, there’s no toilet.  It’s far from glamorous.

Shanghai Yangshan Phase IV is the world's largest smart container terminal

It’s a different story at Phase IV of Shanghai Yangshan Port. In operation since June 2021, the optically networked facility is a smart port that lets workers do their job remotely.  In fact, the fiber network provides such a high level of performance that some of the operators could do their job from 100 kilometers away!

Around the world, many container terminal operators have opted to digitally transform their operations with the help of wireless 5G.  5G is a choice that makes eminent sense for container terminals that are already in operation because setting up 5G can be done without interfering with ongoing port operations.  One day you flip the switch, et voila, the port is smart and without a single day of operation lost.

Yangshan is a major player in global logistics

But when building a new terminal or performing major maintenance at an existing one, it’s possible to digitally transform the site by laying out optical fiber.  After set up, data on a fully-optical network literally travels at the speed of light. In addition, fiber provides extremely high bandwidth and low latency.  What is more, optical networks consume very little electricity. 

Shanghai Yangshan Port Phase IV implements F5G, the fifth generation of optical network technologies. F5G is a series of standards defined by European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Compared with traditional industrial Ethernet networks, F5G has obvious advantages in bandwidth, latency, reliability, and number of connections, meeting the requirements of industrial IoT construction. It provides a safe and reliable connection channel for remote control of machinery. 

The network technology’s latency of a mere 6 milliseconds over a distance of 100 kilometers is what allows crane operators to man the equipment from far away.  Instead of having to see what they’re doing with their own eyes from inside a cabin up in the air, they can instead handle containers while looking at high-definition video.  Similarly, staff who had to stand in the port keeping track of the movements of containers can do the same job from an office as well.

Dockyard work used to be "men only need apply." The industry now appeals to women

Yangshan Phase IV is the world’s largest smart container terminal.  Recently (May 2023), it handled 26,066 TEUs (a measurement unit equivalent to a standard 20-foot container) in 24 hours, which is remarkable because the facility only employs 400 staff.  Without a digital transformation, it would require 1000 people to operate.  Productivity is 213% that of a traditional port. Bridge cranes at the site can handle a stunning 63.88 TEU/hour. 

Huang Hua, a dockworker with 11 years of experience in traditional terminals, believes that bridge cranes jobs have now evolved from operator-level to managerial. He used to spend 12 hours a day in the 45-meter-high bridge crane cab, bending over and focusing on the containers under the cab. It was hot in winter, cold in winter, frightening in the wind, and the toilet break was another story. Now he sits in front of the computer screen, moving containers that are kilometers away as if he were playing a video game. 

Containers move at Yangshan with few humans in sight

Huawei deployed the F5G network for Yangshan Phase IV. Huawei's solution achieves zero frame freezing on the video network, meaning that the bridge crane operator sees the container more clearly through HD cameras and has a more accurate sense of distance. It is based on the XGS-PON 10GE access technology, QoS control of service flows, and dynamic bandwidth allocation (DBA) technology. 

In ultra-remote control scenarios where the distance between the urban area the wharf exceeds 100 KMs, the PLC controller and remote control center are connected through FTTM and OTN end-to-end all-optical connections. The access-side FTTM network uses time division multiplexing (TDM) technology to ensure the deterministic delay of the terminal network. Meanwhile, the OTN network uses wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) technology to ensure that control services exclusively use natural hard pipes and ensure the deterministic delay of the backbone fiber bearer network. F5G offers a simplified architecture, fewer network layers, low network latency, and smooth ultra-remote control operations. Compared with traditional operation mode, F5G improves efficiency by more than 30 times.

A Yangshan container terminal manager commented that "data runs around more and employees run less." The now-proven technology will soon make its way around the world.

Watch the video below to see F5G "magic" at work at Yangshan Phase IV.