Union Pacific to test robotic cranes at Chicago’s intermodal hub

Dive brief:

  • Union Pacific has purchased five autonomous cranes as part of an effort to reduce greenhouse gases and streamline the loading and unloading process at its Chicago-area terminal, according to a recent announcement.
  • The company will begin testing cranes, which use artificial intelligence to semi-autonomously load and unload intermodal containers onto trucks, next year at the railroad’s Global 4 intermodal terminal in Joliet, in Illinois, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago. However, skilled workers are still needed to supervise the crane as it lowers the containers to the truck frame to “ensure it runs smoothly and safely,” according to a statement.
  • Union Pacific said it may expand the use of autonomous cranes to other terminals, depending on the results of the test. “These electric cranes will help us meet our goals of building a more sustainable future in the transportation industry, while providing faster and more efficient service to our customers,” said Jeff Chapman, general manager of capacity and technology, in a statement.

Dive overview:

Union Pacific is turning to technology to streamline operations at its Chicago-area hub, which has been overwhelmed in recent months by shipments from the crowded ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

As imports from Asia increase ahead of the holiday season, supply chain networks are struggling to quickly move boxes from Union Pacific ramps to warehouses and distribution centers. The railroad had to suspend service at its Joliet terminal in July for seven days to deal with a backlog of accumulated containers.

Union Pacific expects the problems “to persist until the end of the year as the ability to move boxes from our ramp to the final destination falls short of demand,” said the president and chief. from management Lance Fritz during a call for results in July.

Autonomous cranes can automatically locate and lift containers, reducing cargo handling time. Truck drivers will be notified of where to pick up the load via an app.

“The crane has the ability to manage multiple priorities, work orders and analyze future lifts, basically do it all,” Matthew Wafer, senior director of capital planning, said in a statement.

Union Pacific in particular has targeted AI as part of plans to make the service more reliable, CFO Jennifer Hamann told a conference in September that the railroad was looking to add “more machine learning to. “and other types of technology to give shippers more visibility.

“We need to improve service predictability and provide more accurate delivery times to our customers,” Hamann said, adding that the railroad “was looking for different ways through APIs to give more control and visibility to our customers directly. “.

The new cranes also do not produce greenhouse gases and will eliminate the use of many diesel trucks, according to a Union Pacific statement. The railroad is targeting a 26% reduction in “absolute Scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions” by 2030, said Beth Whited, executive vice president and chief human resources officer, in August.

Other intermodal terminals are also adopting the technology to speed up operations and reduce the carbon footprint. The ports of Baltimore and Wilmington, Delaware, have purchased electric cranes as part of plans to increase capacity and handle larger shipments. Cranes at the Port of Wilmington, for example, can complete a production selection in 15 minutes, which would have required three hours of work and fuel for a reach stacker, according to a statement.

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