Published: April 2019 (5 Min Read)

In our Summer edition, we introduced the term “Industry 4.0”, which was coined by the German government in a study for the European Parliament. It was defined as “the organisation of production processes based on technology and devices autonomously communicating with each other along the value chain”.

Most commentary focuses upon the efficiency savings and job losses which can be generated from a smart factory, but the advancements made with intelligent machines are having far reaching consequences. Markus Lorenz, a partner of Boston Consulting Group, has talked about the impact of “intelligent machines”. An example can be found on Ted Talks (

Amongst other things Lorenz spoke about cranes which have motors containing sensors which drive the crane, enabling it in real time to assess the weight of the container and to understand, based on the load of the ship, where to position that container in order to optimise the balance of the ship. According to Lorenz, by optimising the ship’s weight balance, savings of around $1,000 per day on fuel alone can be found, saving the shipping company 5-8% of its fuel costs per year.

This works by using the concept of a “digital twin”, whereby a product or process is replicated as a virtual model in a computer. Then by enabling systems to talk to each other autonomously, the sensors inform the computer which in turn is able to instruct the crane how to position the containers optimally.

Companies such as MacGregor, which offers engineering solutions and services to shipbuilders and operators, have expressed how their focus in this area improves the speed at which they can load and unload, thus reducing idle time and helping to lower their CO2 footprint and reduce costs. Health and safety is also improved.

Advances in technology are not just impacting the movement of containers on and off the ship. At dedicated terminals in the ports of Hamburg and Rotterdam containers are taken off the ships and placed onto lorries which have no cabs and are completely autonomous. The system combining these autonomous cranes and lorries takes the containers to the relevant point to be loaded onto a traditional lorry to be driven across the mainland. The only human intervention arises because European law does not allow autonomous machines to operate alongside human personnel,
meaning that as there are humans on the ship and driving the inland lorries, a human must be in control of the first and final crane movements.

This is just one glimpse into what the future may hold, and of the impact autonomous technology may bring to international commerce. Early adopters have taken their first steps, but much of the technology is still in its infancy and the wider potential and the potential disruption of the fourth industrial revolution is yet to come.

Article written by
James Crarer