Using maths to uncover operational efficiencies with highly automated operations at bulk export terminals.


Using maths to uncover operational efficiencies with highly automated operations at bulk export terminals

Mathematical genius Shakuntala Devi once said: “What is mathematics? It is only a systematic effort of solving puzzles posed by nature.”

Solving puzzles is what bulk export terminal businesses are doing daily. They’re faced with rising operational costs, constantly emerging technological systems, environmental conservation, changing regulations and uncertainty about the future. No more so than today, as the world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Doing more with less

The systematic effort of solving puzzles couldn’t be truer than in Aurecon and Queensland University of Technology’s application of mathematics to improve scheduling at bulk export terminals. Working in partnership, the two entities are defining industrial mathematic solutions to bring about greater efficiencies to bulk goods movement through terminals.

  • What’s the puzzle to solve?
    Improve capacity, and therefore income, through better scheduling without capital investment in new equipment.
  • Which are the problems posed by supply and demand of stock?
    Natural forces, stock availability, equipment down-time, external industry influences.
  • Where can the solution be applied to?
    The application of industrial mathematics to create a schedule optimisation system that helps bulk export terminal schedulers to make better decisions, more consistently and more often.
  • What will be the results?
    More efficient and lower cost operations. Improvement in stock capacity. More reliable, evidence-based decisions.

The application of industrial mathematics to design a schedule optimisation system was the result of a partnership between Aurecon and Queensland University of Technology with a research grant from National Energy Resources Australia.

Aurecon’s industry partner is a New South Wales based coal export terminal, providing the test case to better understand what is possible from a high-volume bulk export terminal.

The success of the development of the schedule optimisation system has been the collaborative working partnership between Aurecon, the University, and National Energy Resources Australia. Initial trials and investigation by the group estimates that the industry partner’s coal terminal could increase its capacity by at least 7 per cent per annum by applying the schedule optimisation system. In addition, peak capacity improvements would be realised, leading to reduced ship turnaround times.

The courage to do things a different way

Decisions around short-term terminal operations planning (between two and seven days), and operations scheduling (up to 36 hours), for ship berthing and coal transfer, are fundamentally manual processes for current coal export terminals.

Equipment allocation clashes at coal export terminals can lead to significant aggregate operational delays, which limit the overall throughput of the terminal.

Computational optimisation software tools have been used in other applications to support scheduling of resources and activities. However, computational optimisation of the stacking, reclaiming and ship loading activities at coal export terminals has, until now, not been successfully addressed.

There’s now a pathway to take operational efficiency at coal terminals to the next level with highly automated decision making. The schedule optimisation system developed in this joint study uses mathematical methods such as graph theory, simulated annealing, and search parallelisation to coordinate the complex interactions of equipment and resources at coal terminals.

The result is more scheduling accuracy and efficiency available to terminal planners, and less clashes between equipment. Operational decisions are backed by evidence-based data, not only opinion and historical data. This clever way to remove delays from the movement of stackers and reclaimers is able to increase coal export terminal capacity without capital expenditure on terminal infrastructure.

The schedule optimisation system provides the opportunity to do things a different way, to reduce delays and improve scheduling at bulk export terminals.

The benefits are not limited to coal terminals

This application of mathematical optimisation can help accurately evaluate alternative scheduling across any type of bulk import and export terminals, not only coal, with the potential to deliver national and sector wide impact.

Beyond coal and other bulk export terminals, the software has broad applications across industries with similarly complex scheduling problems with concurrency and pre-emption requirements, such as maritime, manufacturing and production, mining and bulk earthworks, and health care.

All the pieces of the puzzle

Current terminal scheduling is heavily based on human analysis of patterns, rules of thumb, instinct and local policies. Visualisation tools only get terminal planners so far and can’t resolve all issues or provide optimal solutions from evidence-based data.

Implementation of a schedule optimisation system would work alongside existing on-site systems to help planners make more informed decisions, more often. This system isn’t about replacing a job or completely removing decision-making from an operator. It’s about supporting their decisions, managing time delays and allocating clashes between equipment.

Surely, not a bad way to improve business operations.

If there is an existing scheduling system at a site, there’s a good chance that it has latency that can be unlocked through mathematics and simulation to prove the case for investment, the opportunities for optimisation, or the identification of risks to address.

For bulk terminal export businesses that are spinning numerous plates and tackling everything that needs doing, mathematics can certainly provide a systematic effort to solving operational puzzles.

About the Authors

Simon Smith is a simulation analyst with Aurecon and has a wealth of experience in simulation of both local and international rail, port, mining and supply chain operations.

He helps Aurecon’s clients optimise their capital expenditure in new developments and expansions and provides clarity on the impact of operational changes to their business operations. This provides clients with the opportunity to develop optimum operational solutions, backed up by the robustness and rigour that dynamic simulation provides.

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