YSH4 in Shanghai: The world’s largest automated terminal

Yangshan Phase 4 is the largest fully automated terminal in the world. It is supposed to help Shanghai become the international centre for shipping. An on-site visit.

It takes about half an hour by car to cross the bridge leading to Yangshan Port. The six-lane Donghai Bridge, one of the longest cross-sea bridges in the world, is an impressive structure that can easily be seen as one flies into Pudong Airport. And while your car practically glides over the water, some navigation devices worry and warn: “Turn around immediately. You are in water.”

In 2001, the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) started filling in the Great and Lesser Yangshan islands to build four new terminals a bit south of the city. Yangshan Phase 4 (YSH4), the newest terminal, opened in December 2017 and is the largest and most advanced automated terminal in the world. It already handled more than 2 million TEU in its first year in operation, and SIPG aims to boost this figure to 3.2 million TEU during the current year. But even that would still be much less than its maximum handling capacity.

YSH4 is not only at the cutting edge of technology, as SIPG is also committed to building smart, eco-friendly ports. With this in mind, YSH4 is designed not only to be efficient in terms of automated processes, but also in terms of energy consumption.

“Yangshan Phase 4 is an important symbol of China’s efforts to open up to the world market,” says Wang Jun, Operation Manager of Yangshan Phase 4. “It enables efficient vessel handling, is integrated into the Silk Road network, and is easily accessible to large container ships.”

With its location about 30 kilometres from the city and practically in the middle of the sea, it can offer water depths of up to 15 metres. In terms of transhipment volumes, Shanghai is already the world’s largest port. In the long term, the Chinese hope that the deep-sea port will allow them to replace Singapore as the most important international transshipment hub in Asia.

In addition to the hardware, the cranes and the automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are “Made in China” – and all of them were designed and manufactured by the Shanghai Zhenhau Heavy Industries Company. And the software was developed completely in-house, too.

Sixteen container-handling gantry cranes, 88 automatic stacking cranes, 4 electronic portal cranes and 80 AGVs – these are the key figures for YSH Phase 4. As spectacular as that might sound, the reality seems almost sad, as the terminal is virtually deserted of people. Truck drivers and a few isolated workers can be seen at the berthed ships. Even the reception of containers is completely automated: Truck drivers hold a chip card up to a scanner at the terminal entrance. The scanner then reads the data on the card and tells the driver the collection point to which the desired container will be brought by an AGV. To keep everything running smoothly, there are 60,000 transmitters embedded in the ground.

The main work is performed in the tower, which houses about 16 crane operators. With a joystick in each hand, they sit in front of six large screens. On them, the containers can be viewed from the perspective of the crane – i.e. from above and from the side. Only a few stevedores are working under the cranes. Their primary job it to ensure that the so-called twistlocks – i.e., the interlocks that connect containers to one another – are securely fastened. In other words, only the very last step is done manually here. However, it is highly likely that this task will also be automated in the future.

Xi Jinping, president of the People’s Republic of China, visited the terminal at the beginning of the year to form his own opinion. He was impressed, and the number of machines is now supposed to be doubled by 2021. Doing so will boost the terminal’s annual capacity to 7 million TEU.


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