For most of us, autonomous vehicles feel like a distant dream – one of those inventions that always remains a few years away, such as Marty McFly’s hoverboard or Luke Skywalker’s light sabre - flying cars or cables that don’t get tangled up all the time (maybe that last one is just me).
But BASF is bringing that future a few steps closer with a series of innovations based around automation at its Ludwigshafen site. Its plan aims to reduce the costs of rail transport by around 25% by introducing automated guided vehicles (AGVs), using newly designed and optimised tank containers and building a new tank container depot. “We are a launching this innovative leap in logistics at the site and we are a pioneer for the entire industry,” says site manager Dr Uwe Liebelt.
The challenge is clear. In the chemicals industry, the costs of transport represent only 30% to 40% of the overall costs. The rest comes during the first and last mile and from the equipment used (tank wagons, which have a long turnaround and are difficult to clean). Faced with this problem, the option of road, where the development of automation is less restricted by regulation and could lead to improvements in cost efficiency of around 28%, becomes more tempting.
From 22 hours to one hour
Of the three initiatives, AGVs have grabbed the most headlines. Developed with the VDL Group, the vehicle is 16.5 metres long with 32 wheels and eight steerable axles capable of handling a payload of up to 78 tonnes. It is steered using transponders in the road and can be positioned with an accuracy of 3cm. At present it takes around 22 hours for a railway tank car to go from BASF’s train station to the loading stations at the site. With this vehicle, that will be cut to only one hour.
Tank containers streamline processes
The AGVs will be transporting a new tank container – the B-TC (BASF Class Tank Container) – developed in collaboration with Belgian manufacturer van Hool. These can be detached from the wagon, making it far easier to move them around the site, but they still have a capacity of up to 73,500 litres and are insulated and heatable. Because they can be taken to any normal tank cleaning facility, they are far easier to clean than tank wagons, minimising the need for empty return journeys. From July, 90 of these will be in use in Ludwigshafen and another 550 will be delivered in 2018.
Get ready for the next wave of innovation
These new tank containers can also be stored temporarily, which leads on to the next innovation that is currently under construction at Ludwigshafen – a fully automated tank container depot. This will have a capacity of 2,000 TEUs with two automatic staking cranes with a capacity of 75 tonnes. It will be trimodal – allowing goods to be loaded by AGVs, trucks and rail.
These innovations are impressive and should also put the industry on notice that further game-changing innovation is on its way. The use of autonomy is being expanded to maritime operations as well, which could cut the cost of operating mega ships, and to port operations, where autonomy could create huge efficiencies. Tank owners and operators need to be leading these innovations and at the same time should be ready to adapt when new players enter the market and try to disrupt it.
For this to happen, the industry needs room to experiment. It would be a missed opportunity to restrict BASF’s initiatives to the Ludwigshafen site. AGVs are suitable for transport in urban environments – in particular they could be used to cover the first and last mile close to the intermodal terminal. This could boost productivity and lower environmental impact, but it will only be possible if legislators approve the use of AGVs of 100 tonnes total weight within a 25km radius of an intermodal terminal and support the developments in their funding programmes, as Dr Thorsten Bieker of BASF recently called for in an article. If businesses such as BASF are set free to innovate more widely, their ideas could set up intermodal transport for the next 20-25 years. Maybe then they can get to work on that hoverboard.