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Dematic leads industry with world-first voice solution

Supplier: Dematic
01 October, 2009

CentrePort has become what is believed to be the first port operator in the world to implement voice-directed computing.

The introduction of voice technology on six new twin-lift straddle carriers and eight older straddles at the Wellington port is a significant breakthrough in port operations, delivering a wide range of benefits including enhanced safety, productivity and increased accuracy.

For the past 10 years, container movements in most ports have been directed via radio data terminals (RDT) fitted to container handling equipment such as forklifts and straddle carriers. Operators read instructions on where to go and what to do from the RDT’s screen and use a keyboard to confirm actions.

Why voice is better for container handling
“Container handling is much more complicated than normal forklift operations. The operators can be sitting up to 15m in the air, and visibility is restricted when handling and transporting containers,” said Karen Funnell, CentrePort’s Health Safety and Security Manager.

“The obvious benefit with voice-directed computing is its hands-free, eyes-free operation. It enables drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel and controls, and their eyes on where they are going at all times, making it an intrinsically safer and more efficient process for directing container movements.

“Reducing the distractions or number of actions a driver has to do improves health and safety. Just reading a computer screen in an operator’s cab can be difficult at times because of glare,” she said.

“Voice also means the drivers don’t need to be constantly changing their field of vision and focus from long to short, which further enhances safety.”

Container handling by voice
The Vocollect voice-directed computing system, supplied and integrated by Dematic Real Time Logistics, interfaces with CentrePort’s container terminal management system, Jade Master Terminal (JMT).

Developed by shipping industry specialist Jade Software Corporation, JMT transmits work instructions directly to the voice-directed computing system.

Container locations within the port are identified by an alpha row and numerical location combined with the
height of the containers.

A computer-generated voice command directs operators to retrieve a container from a specific location. The operator indicates that he is ready and reads out the last four digits of the container number to verify that the correct container is picked up.

The voice system then instructs the operator to transport the container to the desired location within the port. When the operator arrives at the destination, the operator says “go ahead” after the container is placed in the correct location. On acknowledgement of the task, the operator receives their next instruction.

Operation is completely hands and eyes-free at all times, enabling the driver to concentrate on the task of handling and transporting containers as safely and efficiently as possible.

Should the driver need to speak directly to a supervisor, or to one of the other straddle carrier operators, the operator cabins are also equipped with a standard two-way radio system.

Improving accuracy and productivity
“Losing track of a container is the cardinal sin in the ports industry. It is never easy tracking one down once it has gone missing,” acknowledged CentrePort’s Programme Director David Cossey.

“It’s not only the time and effort you waste looking for a missing container. It can often have a flow-on effect, holding up the loading of a ship or a truck,” he explained.

With the RDT system operators did not have to verify what container was picked up and if the wrong container was put in a location, CentrePort had no way of knowing where it had been put.

“We are pleased to say we have all but achieved 100% pick up accuracy since the introduction of voice,” added Mr Cossey, “and are also looking into how we can integrate GPS tracking to further improve container location management within the port.

“We are also seeing positive gains in productivity, but it is still too early to quantify the improvement. Time will tell, but we expect a long-term productivity gain of around 10-15%,” he said.

Operators speak up on voice
Feedback from CentrePort’s Cargo Handlers has been mostly positive. Typical comments include: “It makes so much more sense,” “We can focus on the job at hand, rather than constantly be glancing back and forth at a computer screen and fiddling with a keyboard,” and “There’s no doubt voice is the way ahead for the ports industry.”

Mobile equipment operators are meant to come to a complete stop when they check instructions on their RDT, but that doesn’t always happen. With the voice system, the operator never needs to take their eyes off where they are going or what they are doing.

CentrePorts Operations Manager, Ray Kearns said: “Now that we have proved voice is a better solution and also improves workplace safety, I’d be very surprised if more ports don’t make the switch.”

Implementing a step change in the ports industry
Running concurrently with the voice-directed computing project was another CentrePort initiative aimed at boosting productivity and throughput capacity.

With several of its existing straddle carrier fleet nearing the end of their operational life, CentrePort purchased six new diesel electric twin-lifts. Twin lift straddle carriers significantly improve productivity in busy container handling applications, enabling two 20-foot containers to be lifted and handled at the same time.

“With the implementation of voice-directed computing and our new twin-lift straddle carriers, we have managed to implement a step change,” stated Mr Cossey.