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Improving port systems with technology applications and automations

Over the past half century, the port and shipping industry has reinvented itself, ushering in containerisation, larger vessels, and electronic data interchange. Today’s technology and business model innovations are the driving force behind the Smart Port. Although determining which technologies, how to implement them and the way in which they can support the overall digital strategy of the port remains a challenge, findings shows it is also faced with a myriad of issues both technical and strategic.

Ports with a competitive edge mindset must maintain and implement smart-port technologies strategies to stay productive, customer friendly, efficient, profitable and competitive. Progressive ports are embracing this technology disrupting other industries, they are cloud-based services, mobile devices and apps, sensors and other Internet of Things’ (IoT) technologies, augmented reality, autonomous transportation, blockchain technology, and big data.

For example, IoT, represents a convergence between the physical and digital worlds, ultimately using data as a source of value. IoT technologies are being applied in diverse settings, from transport optimisation to warehousing and transport management systems. These developments have been accelerated by a centralised networks system that rely on distribution and analysis of information.

The Port of Shanghai in China – the largest and busiest Port in the world by cargo tonnage – and the Port of Singapore – the second busiest port in the world by cargo tonnage – are examples of ports transformed by the application of technology. It is not surprising that Port of Shanghai handled 744 million tonnes of cargo in 2012 including 32.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of containers and comprised of 125 berths with total quay length of about 20km, it serves more than 2,000 container ships on a monthly basis and accounts for a quarter of China’s total foreign trade.

Seaports are playing catch-up with the large transport and logistics players when it comes to developing insight driven solutions and IoT applications. Recent details offer some initial attempts at enhancing value propositions through technologies applications and automations.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has a communication counterpart running in parallel called Digital Silk Road, another structure put in place to boost Chinese economy through Port applications (also known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR)). OBOR is one of President Xi’s most ambitious foreign and economic policies to date.

It aims to strengthen Beijing’s economic leadership through a vast program of infrastructure building throughout China’s neighbouring regions, part of Beijing’s strategic calculation and the main reason Chinese shipping firms are turning the initiative into reality with a series of aggressive acquisitions which is reshaping global maritime industry.

Cosco shipping ports and China Merchants Port Holdings have gone on a buying spree of late, snapping up cargo terminals in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean sea and the Atlantic rim, not long ago, Cosco finalised the takeover of the terminal in Zeebrugge, Belgium’s second-biggest port, it marked the Chinese firm’s first bridgehead in north western Europe. That deal followed a raft of other acquisitions in Spain, Italy and Greece in the last couple of years. Chinese state firms which once kept close to their home market are now controlling about one-tenth of all European Port capacity.

Port Stakeholders need to adopt new initiatives, strategies, technologies and embrace platforms and services that makes it easier for stakeholders to work together to promote greater efficiency of the ecosystem. Another example is at Germany’s Port of Hamburg where a wide range connected port initiatives have been adopted to double capacity by 2025 to reduce both operating and logistics costs for both operators and cargo owners.

Although the Smart Port and IoT initiatives are commendable, there is still a long way to go before we can truly speak of fully integrated ports that fully maximize the full potential of IoT, value added initiatives, strategies and insight driven applications. Becoming a Smart Port means developing solutions to address the current and future challenges faced by seaports including spatial constraints, pressure on productivity, fiscal limitations, safety and security risks and sustainability.

The diverse nature of a port, having a wide variety of companies and ecosystems, operating different kinds of equipment and requiring different types of products and services creates a complicated environment with multiple stakeholders.

In addition to heterogeneity of data, a fear of transparency also remains a major issue because Ports are typically comprised of a cluster of competing companies, sometimes hesitant to share information with a central authority that has the ability to aggregate and distribute data amongst Port stakeholders in the ecosystem. Furthermore, the interaction with the surrounding environment, both ecologically and socially, adds an extra layer of complexity to Smart Port development.

Therefore, port stakeholders need to adopt port technology, automations and embrace platforms and services that will make it easier for stakeholders to work together to promote greater efficiency, productivity and to add more value within the port ecosystem globally.

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