- The Long Beach City Council voted unanimously Tuesday for the city to work with the Harbor Department to conduct a study on automation at the Port of Long Beach and its impact on the local community.
- Councilmember Rex Richardson, one of the councilmembers to introduce the measure, said the transition to automation at the nation's ports "has a lot of people on edge" and a study could help the city to better understand the evolution's repercussions.
- The report is to be completed in 120 days and will focus on the effect automation will have on the local economy and jobs.
During the city council meeting, Richardson spoke about other cities and industries hit hard by automation, saying Long Beach needs to start thinking about what will happen when automation takes over at one of the city's main economic engines.
"I think we need to be able to ask some very clear questions about the status of whatever transition is taking place with respect to automation in the ports adjacent to our community," he said.
Other studies on the effects of port automation are currently underway in Los Angeles, Councilmember Roberto Uranga pointed out during Tuesday's meeting.
Councilmember Suzie Price asked that the study look at what automation would mean for productivity at the port.
"Automation is something that is not just affecting our port, but every port in the world, and is something we're going to have to be very cognizant of in terms of impact not just to the workers or to the industry, but to both," Price said.
During the public comment period before the vote, multiple union members spoke in favor of the report and against the idea of further automation.
The Port of Long Beach has already begun its transition to automation. In 2011, the port began the Middle Harbor Terminal Redevelopment Project, which has resulted in investment of more than $650 million in technology and equipment. This includes 70 automated stacking cranes and 72 automated guided container transport vehicles, according to press releases from the port.
Video taken by CBS Los Angeles shows these automated vehicles in action. Containers are placed on the vehicles using a crane which then takes them to the next destination within the port, all without a human operator.
"If we don't get ahead of what is happening this economy could suffer indefinitely," Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said before the vote Tuesday.
Automation has been a contentious issue at the Port of Los Angeles, just a short drive from the Port of Long Beach, for the last few months as APM Terminals sought to begin automation projects and The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) tried to stop it. The Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners ended up approving a permit last month to allow this process to begin.
Labor represents one of the highest costs for ports and automated terminals could reduce labor requirements by 40-70%, according to research by Moody's.
But research has been inconsistent on what automation could mean for productivity. Moody's said bringing "automation into container terminal operations can improve labor productivity, commonly measured as manhours per lift, by more than 50%, depending on the mix of automated and conventional handling in the operation."
A McKinsey survey, though, found "practitioners responding to the survey think that these ports, especially fully automated ones, are generally less productive than their conventional counterparts."
Another point made by Moody's is these automation updates come with a lot of political risk. These facilities provide high paying jobs that don't require a college education. Getting rid of these jobs through increased automation would save the terminal operators money, but the impact on the community more broadly is something the Long Beach City Council wants to better understand.