Rise of the machines - the automated supply chain

Author: Andy Hemphill


By Andy Hemphill

LONDON (ICIS)--Once the dream of science fiction authors, autonomous vehicles now look set to be the next ‘great leap’ in transportation, and while autonomous automobiles built by the likes of global tech giant Google are mere years from production, similar technology could soon also change the chemical and fertilizer supply chain forever.

The cost of bulk transportation is a considerable drain on any chemical or fertilizer producer’s resources, with the pursuit of good netbacks a vital consideration for ensuring a healthy profit margin.

Added to this concern is the cost of employing, training, and retaining the highly-skilled staff required to operate the chemical and fertilizer supply chain’s immense logistical operations – but what if the trucks, tankers, and trains ran themselves?

The creation of a global network of autonomous vehicles may be closer than you might think. For example, on Monday, mining giant Rio Tinto announced the successful test of its ‘AutoHaul’ project – an autonomous bulk freight train system set to revolutionise the producer’s Australian iron ore operations.

The three AutoHaul locomotives and their accompanying freight cars successfully completed a 100km (62 mile) pilot run between Wombat Junction and Paraburdoo, before coming to a safe stop – and all without a driver at the controls.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury says: “This successful pilot run puts us firmly on track to meet our goal of operating the world’s first fully-autonomous, heavy haul, long distance rail network, which will unlock significant safety and productivity benefits for the business.”

Meanwhile, on the subject of potential job losses resulting from the company’s plan, Salisbury adds: “New roles are being created to manage our future operations, and we are preparing our current workforce for new ways of working to ensure they remain part of our industry.”

Rio Tinto expects to be able to realise its goal of commissioning the AutoHaul project in late 2018, once “all safety and acceptance criteria have been met and regulatory approvals obtained”.

Meanwhile, the continued advancement of automation technology can also be seen on the waves, after Norwegian fertilizer production giant Yara last week announced the first test of its ‘Yara Birkeland’ autonomous, electrically-powered container vessel – albeit in model form.

The Birkeland-class bulk carrier, named for company founder Kristian Birkeland, was envisioned to transport fertilizer, including urea, ammonium nitrate (AN), and ammonium, from Yara's production plant in Porsgrunn to container ports in Brevik and Larvik.

By moving this transport requirement from road to sea, Yara claims it could potentially cut down on 40,000 journeys with diesel-powered trucks every year.

Built in partnership with Norwegian technology firm Kongsburg, a 6m model of the zero-emission container ship was put to the test in oceanographic research company SINTEF Ocean’s 80m sea laboratory in Trondheim, Norway.

The 2.4-tonne model features a thruster system developed by Kongsberg, and will undergo comprehensive testing at SINTEF until the end of the year – at which point, Yara will select the shipyard destined to build the first true Birkeland-class vessel in its fleet, with a launch date of 2019.

The President and CEO of Yara, Svein Tore Holsether, says: "With this new autonomous battery-driven container vessel we move transport from road to sea and thereby reduce noise and dust emissions, improve the safety of local roads, and reduce emissions.

"It was a special moment in Trondheim when, together with our partners – Kongsberg, Marin Teknikk, SINTEF and ENOV – we witnessed the design and demonstration of a miniature Yara Birkeland for the first time."

The Norwegian government enterprise ENOVA has granted Norwegian krone (NKr) 133.6m ($16.7m) to Yara towards the construction of the first Birkeland – an investment that will cover about one-third of the estimated cost.

ENOVA is responsible for promoting and supporting environmentally friendly production and energy consumption – with safety also a key consideration throughout.

"The interest in autonomous transport is great, but at the same time, many are sceptical and question the safety,” says Nils Kristian Nakstad, CEO of ENOVA. “The key contribution from this project is to demonstrate that autonomous and electric sea transport is feasible, and will deliver the results we want.”

Time will tell if autonomous transportation will take off for the chemical and fertilizer industry – but savvy producers are rightfully watching developments with interest.

($1 = 7.99NKr)