Thursday, November 11, 2021

Save the Robots!

Last week I reported on Alyssia Finley’s analysis of the supply chain crisis. She argued, persuasively, that the fault lay with labor unions and government regulations. It makes intuitive sense, so it is worthy of your attention.

Obviously, as Eric Boehm explains on the Reason site, the way to solve the problem is to automate the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. (Maggie's Farm) That means, bringing in more robots. It would make for a wonderful addition to America’s infrastructure.

You would think that the fancy new infrastructure bill, the one that just passed Congress, would have set aside funding for this task. You would be wrong. You see, the labor unions are anti-robot, so the bill explicitly forbids funding robots.

Got it?

Boehm explains clearly:

A lack of robots is one of the single biggest problems among the many logistical issues currently tangling America's supply chains.

In this, as in many other aspects, we are lagging the world:

At most major ports around the world, the cranes that unload shipping containers from boats to trucks are largely automated. That means they can operate around the clock at lower cost and—extra importantly right now—have zero risk of catching COVID-19. One recent study found that cranes at the mostly automated port in Rotterdam, Netherlands, are roughly 80 percent more efficient than cranes at the Port of Oakland, California, where humans still man the controls. In other words, it takes nearly twice as long to unload the same ship in Oakland as it would in Rotterdam.

Last I heard, ports in Shanghai are about five times more efficient than are those in California. So, we need more automation:

One of the major hurdles to automation is the expense. It can cost as much as $500 million to install new, fully automated terminals at existing ports, according to the Journal of Commerce, a trade publication. Even if it might make sense to do that in the long run, short-term considerations keep American ports operating at their current, less efficient status quo.

The new infrastructure bill prohibits money being used to automate. It wants to green the ports, to fight pollution.

Conveniently, Congress has just passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending bill—one that includes $17 billion for port infrastructure. Of that $17 billion, about $2.6 billion is specifically earmarked for defraying the cost of upgrading equipment at America's ports, nominally to reduce air pollution.

If you were a member of Congress looking to spend a bunch of money to immediately and meaningfully upgrade American infrastructure in a way that would help solve the current supply chain logjams, automating ports should be at or near the top of the list. It's quite literally a no-brainer.

The bad news, however, is buried on page 308 of the 1,600-plus page bill: "The term 'zero-emission port equipment or technology' means human-operated equipment or human-maintained technology."

Yes, the subsidies doled out as part of President Joe Biden's bipartisan infrastructure deal are expressly forbidden from being used to automate operations at American ports. Instead, taxpayers will spend billions to upgrade existing cranes with lower-emissions alternatives that won't actually work any faster or cheaper. It's a major missed opportunity.

Why? Biden's close ties to labor unions probably have something to do with it. Along with the cost, unions are the biggest reason why American ports don't have more robots. When an automated terminal was introduced at the Port of Los Angeles a few years ago, the politically powerful longshoreman's union that represents dockworkers threw a fit.

Of course, it’s the labor unions, stupid.

As we also bemoan the lack of truck drivers at these ports, Boehm notes that they really, really like automated terminals:

But the automated terminals were a hit with truck drivers who work at the port. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2019 that drivers, who are paid by the delivery, were thrilled to have more reliable loading schedules, instead of having to wait around for hours to pick up a container. One truck driver told the paper that automation meant no longer having to "wait hours and hours in long lines" because the dockworkers decided to "leave early to go to lunch and come back late."

Automated ports in places like Norfolk, Virginia, meanwhile, are handling record volumes with no backlogs, according to the Journal of Commerce. 

"With the automation, you can rework your yard to say, 'Okay, while I was expecting to be loading Ship A first, I'm now loading Ship B first,′ and can keep import flow fluid," Stephen Edwards, CEO and executive director of the Port of Virginia, told the Journal in September.

So, we need a new campaign: Save the Robots.

For those who were not living in New York City a few decades ago, Save the Robots was also the name of an after-hours club on the lower East Side. I thought you would want to know.


David Foster said...

"The term 'zero-emission port equipment or technology' means human-operated equipment or human-maintained technology."

This definition seems broad enough to encompass an awful lot. Just about any system with mechanical components is going to need maintenance, involving actual humans, on a pretty frequent frequent does it need to be for it to be considered 'human-maintained'. And as for 'human-operated'....if a human keys in the sequence of containers to be unloaded, but the planning of the crane actions to take them off the ship is left to the automation, is the system human operated? Seems like a fertile ground for disputes and litigation.

As an analogy: in large railyards ('hump yards', specifically), a worker in a tower directs which cars are to go onto which sidings, but the control of the switches to send them there, and the braking to ensure that they don't run into each other too violently, is automated and has been so for decades. Is that 'human-operated'? And how about when the which-cars to which-towers information is transferred automatically from an information system, as I'm pretty sure it is these days...but the tower operator is still there to deal with the inevitable foul-ups....human-operated, or not?

Sam L. said...

Ahhhh, California! The STUPID is know the rest.

Linda Fox said...

I also posted about that shipping issue, and concurred with Reason.
One facet of unloading the cargo is that some of it - a not-insignificant part - mysteriously 'disappears' in the process. And, the workers on the docks are relatively big guys, not necessarily that cerebral in nature.
Naturally, if the robots are put in place, the cargo will be intact (not stolen, not 'broken by accident, then taken off the manifest - later to 'mysteriously' turn up in other places". The current workers will either have to dedicate their time to learning what is essentially a whole new trade, or hit the unemployment line. And, only a small fraction of those new jobs will be available.