The future of ports: how to stay competitive

Ports need to constantly anticipate challenges by adapting their infrastructure and equipment to the new generation of vessels and also by accommodating the latest technologies. As a matter of fact, over the past decades and especially during the last years, ports have evolved towards greater efficiency, lowering cargo handling costs.

However, in the existing competitive landscape, ports need to go one step further. They must not only focus on the classical approach of adding more CAPEX, but achieve greater integration within the supply chain, improving data management and ultimately become more competitive. That can be partly achieved by introducing smart technologies and going digital. To do so, operators must embrace an innovative mindset and implement technologies such as Industrial IoT (Internet of Things), Blockchain technology, automation, and artificial intelligence. Furthermore, they should also go green. The functionalities and advantages of smart technologies in the maritime and port sector will be presented in the following lines of this article.

The advent of industrial IoT (Internet of Things) and Blockchain technologies create a climate of mutual trust between the different port community stakeholders

The ports and maritime sector—as in the rest of the logistics sector—is currently headed towards digitalisation, and one of the main elements of that process are the Blockchain technologies and platforms.

Blockchain is a time-stamped series of immutable record of data that is managed by a cluster of computers that is not owned by a single owner. One of the main advantages of this configuration is that it defines unbreakable rules and provides new methods that enable the traceability and the secure flow of information between the different parties.

Mindful of that, ports are also starting to introduce Blockchain technologies into their business operations, increasing the chances to deliver more efficient operations through:

  • Real-time insight and transparency in transactions with the application of smart contracts in the field of taxes, insurances, customs and payments.
  • Improvement of documentation flows by the digitisation of paper format documents.
  • Automation of parts of the process based on more data sources.

Although Blockchain is still at an early stage of development, most of the relevant stakeholders in the maritime trade have already started to implement it in their operations, and relevant changes are expected to come in the years ahead. By way of example, last summer Maersk announced a collaboration with IBM to apply the TradeLends Blockchain solution to its global supply chain, which will offer real-time access to shipping data and shipping documents. Additionally, in November 2018, a consortium of nine parties including COSCO, CMA, CGM DP World and PSA International was created with a view to developing Blockchain solutions. However, Blockchain applications are not only restricted to shipping lines. Port authorities and operators are also starting to implement these solutions in their daily operations.

This evidence shows that leading maritime players are engaged in developing new solutions and that Blockchain is a technology to be applied in the near future.

The automation of port terminals is just the beginning of the autonomous transport implementation in the entire supply chain

Automation consists of the use of electric, electronic and computerised elements or systems to control equipment and processes, thereby reducing the involvement of humans in such activities and, consequently, the related costs. Automation is widely spread throughout many industries, including also the port sector. As of today, maritime terminals have four subsystems that can be automatized (quay, quay to yard, yard and yard to gate) each of them in a different level of maturity.

Future Ports_0002

Differences in the evolution of self-sufficient operations technologies are mainly driven by the benefits generated vs the costs and the availability and the difficulties to implement the technologies. Historically, the first subsystems that started the adoption of automation were the yard management and the gates, consequently, they are the ones that are more developed and implemented worldwide. Progressively, new technologies continued to be implemented in the yard and in the rest of systems.

Future Ports_003

As a summary, the current situation per subsystem in maritime terminals (mainly in containers) is the following:

  • Quay side – loading/unloading vessels: The present-day inclination is to semi automate with remote control quay cranes. Even this is still rare remote control is starting to spread rapidly in ports due to the better working conditions for the operators, the increase of productivity, the cost reductions, and the improved safety.
  • Horizontal transport – waterside (containers movement between the sea side and the yard): Automation has not yet reached the same level of maturity as yard operations but there is an increasing trend for the use of autonomous handing equipment such as the Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV). Port operators expect this technology will be reliable and competitive in the next decade. The AGV are expected to bring reduction of costs, in the levels of emissions and noise as well as in the terminal safety.
  • Stacking yard: storage area organized in blocks: It is the most widely implemented technology, consisting on equipping the storage area with Automatic Stacking Cranes (ASC) or Cantilever Automatic Rail Mounted Gantry cranes (CARMG) to allocate the containers in blocks. Generally, these technologies improve the stability of performance of the terminal, reduces errors and depending on the case reduces the costs.
  • Horizontal transport- landside: final delivery transportation from the storage area to the gate. Similar to the waterside it is not that developed but there is a trend towards the use of autonomous handling equipment.

On top of the previous some possible automation measures can be applied in the land transportation yet in the early stages. Automation has become a must also for goods transport on land. The technology for autonomous goods transport is there and it can applied depending on the regulations in place. By applying this innovative measure, cost throughout the entire supply chain could be reduce up to 30%.

Future Ports_04
Source: KfW IPEX-Bank

Overall the decision for the automation or not of a terminal is generally dependent on a large number of factors such as: operational costs, yard configuration, terminal utilization, historical productivities, age of equipment, type of cargo traffic, etc…Hence, it is important to analyze the characteristics and demand requirements of each particular terminal to conclude if automation is going to add value to the business and if so, to which level is needed and at which subsystem needs to be implemented.

Artificial intelligence makes ports smarter

Artificial intelligence (AI) consists on the assessment of data in order to take actions that help to maximize the chance of successfully achieving predefined goals. AI has also been implemented in the ports and maritime sector and some examples of its use are in the berth planning, predictive equipment maintenance, automated yard planning or demand planning at the gates based on data processing.

One of the major challenges of AI is its implementations due to the necessity of a smooth introduction of the newest sensor technologies, materializing an accurate big data transmission between on-site sensors and the terminal control host computer through IoT channels, developing man-machine interface for assisting operator’s prompt decision making, renovating the current terminal operating system by employing AI based architecture, and introducing appropriate countermeasures against computer virus and hacking.

The compounded advantages of the previously mentioned digital and technological solutions will further ameliorate the port opportunities on attracting more trade flows and reaching higher level of competitiveness.  Therefore, a bright future appears ahead for the ports that are willing to embark on the technological development digital journey.

About the authors
Pablo Ruiz del Real is MSc in Civil Engineering, Partner at ALG and Head of Middle East operations.
Rubén Naveiro Seijo is MSc in Industrial Engineering and Manager at ALG.
For more insights, please check or contact: