Global ports harbor big plans for smart technology

 —  Article by Natalie Holmes
singapore commercial port
Image credit: Shutterstock

As commercial shipping grows, pioneer ports across the world are increasingly employing smart technologies to meet rising demand and optimize operations.

International shipping is responsible for transporting around 90 percent of world commerce, and as the global economy expands, seaborne trade is expected to near 180 trillion tons by 2030. For ports, the pressure is on – and the old ways of doing things needs rethinking for a new era.

The Port of Hamburg plans to use connected technology to double capacity by 2025 without expanding in space, while reducing costs for both operators and cargo owners. In Rotterdam, IBM aims to roll out a fleet of autonomous ships, again by 2025, starting with the creation of a so-called digital twin—an exact digital replica of the port and its operations.

Singapore, a global Smart City leader, is leveraging big data and AI across various port processes through an initiative called SAFER (Sense-making Analytics For maritime Event Recognition). The system optimizes or automates key tasks that previously relied on human observation and reporting.

“Ports around the world are continuing to innovate in different ways to handle increased cargo volumes and compete with global rivals, both in mature and emerging markets,” says Aaron Ahlburn, JLL’s Managing Director of Industrial Research. “At some ports, that means experimenting with the type of connected technology already established in some Smart City initiatives.”

Developing technology

Connected sensors and big data play a key role in the development of smart ports, by allowing inventory or containers to be accurately tracked as they move around the world. “This kind of technology has the potential to impact entire supply chains, allowing unprecedented transparency that can help improve logistics and contain costs,” says Ahlburn.

“Technology that improves visibility is particularly promising, as it can both streamline importers’ processes and reduce truck congestion, which is a significant problem in port cities,” adds Walter Kemmsies, Managing Director, Economist and Chief Strategist of JLL Ports, Airports and Global Infrastructure.

The Port of Tallinn, for example, has implemented a real-time waiting line system, which, combined with smart visibility systems, can speed up the flow of trucks through both the port and the city beyond.

A new set of challenges

Despite promising opportunities, implementing smart technology systems remains a challenge. “One of the key issues for port authorities is obtaining buy-in from a complex network of stakeholders with competing interests,” says Kemmsies. “Companies are reluctant to share sensitive information that could be used by their competitors to gain an advantage.”

Though still in its infancy, blockchain could provide a transparent solution. A decentralized ledger that stores each transaction simultaneously on multiple computers, blockchain allows conditional transactions, or smart contracts, which can be validated only by consensus of all parties in the network. The Port of Antwerp is trialling such technology to create a secure container collection system.

Another approach, currently being piloted at the Port of Los Angeles, is a digital platform that gives cargo owners and supply chain operators access to secure shipping data, without breaching antitrust regulations. In parallel, collaborations with local authorities work to reduce the impact of port traffic on the rest of the city.

For port authorities experimenting with smart systems, network security remains a key consideration. In 2017, Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping company, was temporarily shut down by a cyber attack, with effects that rippled out global across supply chains. “Ports need to think carefully about these risks, which are substantial,” says Kemmsies.

While select ports spearhead smart technology, Ahlburn believes the wider rollout will progress steadily but slowly, thanks to the complex nature of port operations. “These are often large investments that take time to implement,” he concludes. “For many ports, such innovations will be part of medium- to long-term technological strategies.”

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