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As LA ports automate, some workers are cheering on the robots

Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

There, truckers celebrate automation and rail against dockworkers and city politicians. And they lament their own powerlessness, even as the ILWU engages in high-level talks with other terminals over automation issues.

One post excoriated the dockworkers as "fools (who) took advantage of the job they were given while we suffer. They thought they were untouchable. Now they're crying idiots. They saw truckers were pro-automation, now they want to f--k with us even more."

And another: "Hopefully automation kicks in and then all these lazy ... longshoremen start collecting unemployment."

At Maersk's sprawling APM terminal, also known as Pier 400, the first batch of 50-foot-high robots, painted baby blue, looms over stacks of brightly-colored containers holding everything from sneakers and toys to computers and auto parts. Over the next three years, 100 of the driverless straddle carriers, as they are called, will replace 200 existing cranes and trucks operated by some 500 unionized dockworkers across the facility's 26 miles of roads. The robots, guided by remote computers using WiFi, will deliver cargo to trucks parked outside the container storage yard.

They are expected to slash average turnaround times to an estimated 35 minutes for some 4,000 trucks that enter the terminal daily. In September, Maersk had the ports' worst average turn times, averaging 96 minutes.

Maersk's facility is not the first of the twin ports' 13 terminals to introduce robots. Two smaller sites -- the Long Beach Container Terminal, also known as Pier E, and TraPac, at the Port of Los Angeles -- have largely automated over the last five years. Both now have the shortest cargo turn times at the ports, less than half those of Maersk's APM.

 

For the 200,000 U.S. businesses importing goods through the San Pedro Bay ports -- from such giants as Walmart and Apple to small factories and neighborhood stores -- the speed with which their cargo moves from ships to trucks or trains, and on to consumers, is crucial. Trucking turn times are a key element of supply chain logistics as the ports, plagued by congestion, lose market share to East Coast and Gulf Coast rivals.

What with high labor costs and costly environmental regulations, the Los Angeles and Long Beach complex "is the most expensive in the U.S.," Maersk's Lagaay said. And now, with the widening of the Panama Canal, ports along the East and Gulf coasts of the U.S. are attracting more ships from Asia that have historically berthed in Southern California.

Automation, he said, will make his terminal "more competitive. If you don't remain cost competitive, you lose business."

Weston LaBar, chief executive of the Harbor Trucking Assn., sees drivers increasingly using app-based systems to decline pickups at crowded terminals, while scooping up opportunities at automated facilities.

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