Making a ‘future port’

Peter Richards, group CEO, Gulftainer describes the technological transformation of ports
Peter Richards, group CEO, Gulftainer
Peter Richards, group CEO, Gulftainer


What does the ‘port of the future’ look like to you?
Ports might have been one of the slowest industries to embrace transformation, but things are changing rapidly against the backdrop of technology and innovation. With the maritime industry responsible for 90% of global trade and an upswing in the e-commerce market, there is a need for deeper technology integration and innovation in the industry. It has generated a drive towards enhancing port efficiency, lowering cargo handling costs and integrating port services with other components of the global distribution network. Due to this narrative, we are already getting a glimpse of what ports of the future will look like.

Port operating companies are now focused on different strategies to optimise operations within the supply chain. Ports have become keen to implement efficiency-driven technologies such as:  Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, and ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) to digitise and automate processes, offering customers pricing benefits and faster services. Stevedores handling cargo nets are being replaced by tech-driven solutions, freeing up staff to perform more complex and strategic tasks. We have also seen efficient digital cargo management processes replace lengthy manual accounting systems used in legacy processes. It is evident that conventional ports are evolving and will continue to do so in the coming years. 
The ports of the future have immense potential and we are already there. We envisage that ports will be bigger, faster, greener, automated and smarter. These ports will generate more value for port operators, suppliers, and customers alike. They will also create new jobs with roles that require new skills to be learned by the workforce. Eventually, automated carbon-neutral ports will become increasingly common, and conventional equipment within ports will be replaced.

What technologies are becoming essential for effective port operations? 
Automation, where it is currently in use, not only includes robots on the warehouse floor, but also blockchain, AI and data processing technologies that can gather and process information more efficiently, further eradicating chances of human error. It promises to deliver unmatched productivity.
Blockchain-enabled technology has the potential to provide a transparent, secure and accurate way of capturing and sharing data with key parties. It offers a way of securely linking the disparate systems that shippers, port operators and hauliers use to record and track goods while reducing the time spent manually re-entering data. A number of port operating companies are already leveraging blockchain technology to simplify the lengthy and time-consuming data management procedures. As a port operating company, we have heavily invested in blockchain prototyping to enhance the speed of operations and delivery time, while also increasing data security and transparency.

Another technology, Augmented Reality (AR), has shown massive potential in improving day-to-day port operations. AR is being used globally by some companies to provide crew-members with visual support during their watch-keeping and ship operations through real-time videos, imagery and voyage information. AR also offers information on other vessels sailing on a vessel’s planned route, along with other ocean conditions, such as water depth.

Autonomous drones are proving to be a game changer for the ports industry. Drones are able to fly over storage areas and calculate inventory in mass quantities with great accuracy in a time-efficient manner. They could be used to view areas that are difficult to access, allowing a safer and more cost-efficient way of inspecting operation-critical processes. They help companies transport goods speedily and in an environmentally friendly way. Drones can also be potentially used throughout the supply chain to transport high-value or emergency cargo. They increase efficiency while decreasing costs and carbon emissions.

Automated mooring for stabilising mega ships is another technology being explored. This advancement is especially critical in the era of mega vessels, ensuring that they are moored with greater stability than is possible with conventional line-based mooring. Consequently, this allows port operators to handle the larger number of containers more efficiently.

How are ports going to have to change/modernise their operations to reduce environmental impact?
Port authorities and companies are now being challenged by evolving sustainability agendas to find efficient and creative methods to manage ports more effectively.

With the current focus on reducing carbon emissions, future port development and the protection of the environment will go hand in hand. Reducing emissions has become a priority. Companies have started to educate their employees and make information available about the environmental performance of sea transport providers. New data is enabling companies to set environmentally friendly benchmarks for shipping, while the use of smart data creates visibility for resource management and the potential to save energy.

Port operators are laying the foundation for sustainable operations by establishing a digital infrastructure and utilising automated cranes. They are beginning to leverage the Internet of Things (IoT) to integrate information from ports into the maritime information network, making relevant data accessible for shipping partners in a secure manner. This increases not only efficiency, but also transparency as it aids in the processing of cargo information as well as supporting other port processes associated with the flow of containerised cargo. This reduces the carbon footprint within the operations process as employees can use intelligence and data to understand the optimal time to unload cargo and utilise software to control cranes remotely to get work done.

Port operators will leverage 5G to make the overall operations process environmentally sustainable. Utilising real-time data access, combined with IoT, 5G can streamline operations processes, reduce vessel and vehicle waiting time and congestion, thereby reducing pollution while improving overall efficiency.

There is an ongoing endeavour to transition from linear economies to circular economies globally - a debate in which ports play a key role by bringing manufacturing and various related industries together and supporting the efficient movement and treatment of waste materials.   This could play a massive role in redefining the use of certain products.  For example, where waste products from one industrial process could be used by another company for processing further downstream in the supply chain, not only are we reducing waste, and minimising negative impacts on the environment, but also opening a new and dynamic range of opportunities for businesses.

How are robotics changing how ports work? 
A recent Oxford Economics report has noted that the number of robots being used worldwide has tripled in the last ten years to 2.25 million. We have observed an enormous shift in how companies feel about using robots as they realise the potential the technology has to offer.

For example, robots are being commonly used at ports globally to handle time consuming, labour-intensive tasks such as unloading goods from cargo haulers. Some companies are using unmanned robots to change batteries at swap stations of automated guided vehicles at the port. This kind of automation offers competitive advantages by allowing port operators to handle a larger number of containers more efficiently. It also frees up humans to do more complex tasks such as optimising procedures and reducing long-term operating costs.

Not that robots don’t present their own unique challenges. They need be adapted to the kind of environment they are operating in and they need to be monitored closely. Companies need to ensure they invest in the right supporting technology such as cameras and sensors, as well as the right robotic technology that will be able to identify the obstacles and adapt to the challenges of its tasks. Going forward, robots will also form their own supply chain/maintenance industry.  This will add new and distinct jobs that have not been seen on the waterfront.  Fortunately, due to the advancements in technology today, smarter robots have become a reality and a true investment. We believe that robots and automation technology will be used increasingly to supplement humans in routine tasks that do not require strategic human input and to increase the overall safety of humans within the port environment.

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