First Loading Arm

The Future is Now

This article has been reproduced from Storage Terminals Magazine Spring 2020 issue.

There’s so much to absorb these days. Putting political preferences aside, the world remains a fairly unstable place.

One must be wary of predicting what the future will hold. It is far safer to look back, which is full of facts and data, rather than suggest what may be around the corner. But that’s who we are. The speculation, the wonderment, the curiosity: the human race has to look to the future because it looks for an improvement and that improvement means different things to different people.

Let us take one small element of something that unites this readership: the overland bulk transfer of liquids.

In 1913, the first recorded image of one of the first loading arms - as we know them today - was taken. This picture is from the private archive of Brian Savage of Savage Associates Inc. It was taken in New Jersey for John Savage, Brian’s grandfather and Robert Wheaton I. They were men who looked at a problem and designed a solution. A solution that, for the most part, changed the way an industry worked. The driver looks the picture of happiness at not having to haul heavy hoses around. Someone had actually worked out a way to make his job safer, cleaner and more efficient.

Unfortunately, there are still sites around the world that have not latched on to this radical new thinking. One hundred and seven years after this loading arm arrived on the world scene, there are still operators on sites hauling unsupported hoses around to fill tankers. But, that’s not you is it? Of course not! You wouldn’t be reading a journal like this if you were not progressive, safety minded and taking the best care of your people and operations.

You probably have a person with a hose at ground level doing roughly the same thing? Or, maybe working at height with a harness and wire or a very wobbly safety cage. The fact is you are in the majority. Actually, you are everybody. The reality is that 107 years on, we still, in virtually all cases, rely on a human to move a loading arm or hose around, to match up to a connection or hole on a tanker. It may be a more sophisticated arm. It may have counterbalance, vapour control, switches and valves. But there is always a human there, taking risks that most other humans would prefer not to.

It would be wrong to say we have not progressed. Of course, we have. Nowadays we have legions of experts writing procedures and protocols, to allow other people to perform this dangerous task. We have lawyers who can be consulted if an accident happens and insurance companies charging fortunes to protect the owners from expensive litigation. But the human is still loading or unloading the tanker.

Loading Arm

It is now possible to realise the first major initiative since the invention of the loading arm; removing the human from hauling pipes and hoses on top of tankers

ROBOT TIME

How is it that robots can build cars, drive cars and even perform intricate surgery, but we still need a human to stick a pipe in a hole and pull a lever or press a button? At what point do we retake the initiative that inspired John Savage and Robert Wheaton to make the process safer, more reliable and freer from human intervention?

Let’s look forward and make a prediction. A statement of intent at how the industry could look in 15 or 20 years time, when fossil fuelled vehicles might be no longer available. Essentially, will we be transferring mainly chemicals in that scenario?

JANUARY 2040

3am. The road tanker silently pulls to a halt at the security stop. It is exactly on time. It is always exactly on time. The motor and trailer are scanned, security checked and verified on the host cloud. The security barrier lowers and the tanker proceeds through.

In the control room the supervisor is preparing to go off shift for the evening. He’s been responsible for more than 2,000 loads around the world during the day and the next shift supervisor will see the same amount of transactions.

The tanker makes its way through the plant to the loading bay designated for the fill transaction. It eases to a stop in exactly the correct position. It always does. The truck powers down.

In the control room, a signal advises this has happened and the next stage starts automatically. The supervisor is aware. He can see, in real time, an augmented reality view of the station via his head set and can monitor progress but is not required to take action. The supervisor can see, if required, all active loading spots around the world. Each of them showing road and rail wagons being filled with exactly the right volume and the correct liquid.

Back at the loading station, a robot arm reaches out and connects to the intelligent power-earth-overfill system. This immediately sends a permissive signal, proving the tanker is earthed and the compartment is empty and monitored. Simultaneously, the system sends a high amp, super charge to the tanker to boost its energy cells.

In that same moment, the Autoload loading arm lifts out of the parking portal. It travels directly to the fill-portal on the tanker. As it approaches the fill-portal assembly, a signal is detected by the tanker and the fill-portal confirms that the signal received correctly identifies that the Autoload arm matches the ordered liquid and mass to be loaded. Only then, the fill-portal unlocks to accept the Autoload arm. The Autoload arm engages itself into the portal and then goes through the required pre-load actions, needed to ensure emissions are zero and flow is uninterrupted. The Autoload gathers all required permissive signals through its PLC system to dispense the load that has been ordered.

In the control room a mirrored signal proves that this has happened. The back office servers connect into the client’ credit account and, on site, the load starts automatically. This fill process, along with all other simultaneous fills and discharges globally are managed in the cloud and relayed to the supervisor. At the loading racks, the local PLC measures and controls via the meter and valves built into the Autoload arm.

When the required mass is discharged, the Autoload arm drains empty, runs a short, pre-programmed purge sequence and closes the integral anti-drip device. As it disengages from the tanker, the fill-portal automatically closes, seals and digitally tags that this procedure is complete. That tag is registered into the tanker’s integral server. The loading arm returns to the parking-portal and the power-earth-overfill system detaches and self-stores.

The tanker powers up and silently moves off to the security check point. Once there, it stops. It is scanned, verified and, via a 5G link, collects its Bill of Lading. This verifies the liquid, volume, time of transaction and fill-portal sealing tag. The back-office system verifies the load is paid for and the customer can now track the tanker in real time via a secure application, providing an exact time of arrival at the destination.

3:15am. The tanker glides silently away from the facility to start its journey, gathering power from the inductive loop buried in the recycled plastic highway. Dawn is two hours away. The tanker will cross two countries without stopping, until its destination is reached. It will return to the loading rack for refilling at exactly 3am tomorrow. It is always exactly on time.

The supervisor has a quick handover conversation with the next shift supervisor who is 3,500 miles away, logs off and goes into his kitchen, where his family are laying the table for dinner. The supervisor sits at the table and reflects on what an ordinary day it was.

SO, WHAT HAPPENED THERE?

1. Autonomous driving? It is happening now. In 10 years’ it will be commonplace but not exclusive.

2. Electric powered tankers with on-board unique identifiers, constant status and location communication to the freight company and liquid purchaser? There is enough evidence to suggest that the next decade will see massive advances toward this goal. By 2030, it will be within reach.

3. Combination power-earth-overfill system. This largely exists. It is merely a method of combining existing technologies. Demand will dictate the speed of implementation. Combining it, in an explosion proof environment, is certainly resolvable within the next 10 years. Robotising it will not be beyond the wit of man.

4. Automatic and digitally sealed filling portal? This will replace the manhole with a more compact and automated system that will communicate via secure link to the loading control system. The logistics for this change are massive, but if we are discussing electric tankers with built-in servers, then why not? The issue is the funding and phasing of this. Chemical/oil companies can make the necessary infrastructure change.

Customers can make the receiving liquid changes. But independent contractors and freight companies will not change, unless massively incentivised. By whom? The buyer of the liquid? The seller of the liquid? The government via legislation? It is difficult even to imagine how many conventional manlid systems there are, in daily use, around the world. The primary key to this is the global adoption of a standard. For fuels, the world has adopted API RP1004. A relatively simple framework which has set rules on how that industry works for the last 50 years.

Chemicals and their diversity create a whole different set of physical issues. While a closed fill system is always preferable for security, there are practical and more cost-effective methods for filling tankers that can use the technology available today (manlids). Automation of their opening is the next challenge.

5. Management and supervision of global operations by one human in a ‘control room’ somewhere in the world? The ‘supervisor’ is there to monitor the system only. If a fault develops in the filling spot or within the plant, computer protocols will initially attempt to correct any issue via a live link with the local plc and using AI to work out the problem. If unsuccessful it will alert maintenance technicians to attend and restore the equipment. They will arrive at site and replace the complete station with a spare, creating minimum down time at the loading rack.

6. Autoload Arms with data tracking and autonomous movement? Effectively, an intelligent robot. Devoid of making an error, hitting peripheral objects or overfilling a tanker.

FANTASTIC OR FANTASY?

In 2020 there are elements in this vision requiring infrastructure that does not exist and is only dreamed of by vote-hungry politicians and green campaigners. The reality is the global power infrastructure cannot support the powered roads concept with known technology. For that reason, truly autonomous electric driving is still restricted to premium cost vehicles that can only achieve under 300 miles, before requiring an indeterminate stop for re-energising.

Trucks hauling 30 tonne loads will require consistent and continuous power feed. Because, after all, they will not have to stop for comfort or sleep breaks. The cost and environmental impact of the batteries required to power these vehicles is also, ultimately, unsustainable. So, a direct powered drive, coupled with improved harnessing of solar energy, while using a smaller battery, needs to be foremost when considering the future.

Autoload? That exists. It is now possible to realise the first major initiative since Savage and Wheaton ‘invented’ the loading arm; removing the human from hauling pipes and hoses on top of tankers. The system can be controlled, if control is deemed necessary, from anywhere on the planet. Or, the operation is carried out by the tanker driver. The human’s only task is to open the manhole, return to the platform, press a single button and let Autoload do the work. It will deploy to the tanker, load the tanker, purge and park itself. The human closes the manhole and departs.

I offer you no predictions or promises. This is fact. Autoload is the future, now.

Alec Keeler is managing director of Carbis Loadtec Group Ltd

For more information contact us.

View the article here: Storage Terminals Magazine Spring 2020