Indian Transport & Logistics

Automation can address port congestion, the current headache

Challenges during port automation include resistance from the workforce, especially at the major ports, lack of skilled manpower, issues of coordination between various stakeholders in the logistics value chain and implementation issues for an operational port.

Automation can address port congestion, the current headache

Every major port across the world today is facing vessel congestion, delays in container clearance and no-shows by truck drivers, leading to clogging right through the global supply chain.

And here is exactly where port automation comes into the picture: cloud-based platforms like Port Community System will have a major role to play in addressing the crisis.

“The number of digital investments made by leading shipping lines and port authorities are testimony to this fact. In the coming days, technologies such as 5G, blockchain and Internet of Things (IoT) will find more relevance as IT solutions providers are inculcating these technologies rapidly,” according to Kale Logistics, a logistics solutions provider.

Time taken for a carrier to unberth in a port, on average, is expected to be 40 hours. With the current congestion, the wait time, unloading and turnaround times have become uncertain. "The significant time reflects the manual activities that exist in some ports even today. Cloud-based platforms can seamlessly help overcome these delays with digitised operations," Kale Logistics said in its blog post.

Data from information provider IHM Markit indicated that the time vessels spend in key U.S west coast ports waiting and unloading cargo deteriorated significantly in August 2021 to 348 hours for Los Angeles (vs 255 hours in July 2021) and 268 hours for Long Beach (vs. 190 hours in July 2021). These numbers are around triple what they would have been before the pandemic in August 2019.

Sai Krishna, ICRA: "Challenges during port automation include resistance from the workforce, especially at the major ports, lack of skilled manpower, and issues of coordination between various stakeholders in the logistics value chain."

What ports are doing
Smart technologies are working hard at the Port of Antwerp that handling 120 million tonnes of cargo in the first half of 2021, an increase of 5 percent compared to H1FY20. High-performance 5G network, autonomous drones or smart cameras for inspection or oil spill detection, Antwerp Port is testing them all. The aim - fully control and manage the port remotely.

The Utah Inland Port Authority announced a partnership with QuayChain Technologies to operate what is being described as the world’s first private network to be used solely for the supply chain.

Jack Hedge, executive director, Utah Inland Port Authority, said recently at OceanWaves, an event organised by FreightWaves that “this [5G network] is just the next leg under the table of infrastructure. By utilizing this infrastructure, we’re actually creating capacity in the system, that ability to be more fluid with our goods movement and be more rapid. It adds capability and capacity in the system that otherwise would require additional roads and rail and things like that.”

Andrew Scott, founder and CEO of QuayChain Technologies, said at the OceanWaves event that ports cannot implement advanced technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and IoT if data cannot be transmitted back. “Supply chain is all about communication, and with e-commerce the speed of communication is critical,” Scott added that what is being built at the port is a digital infrastructure with a different approach.

Thomas Bagge, CEO, Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA), a non-profit established in 2019 by the largest container shipping companies, said the great thing about standards is that they enable interoperability. “Then all of a sudden you open the door for so many other things.”

Bagge added that the industry now has momentum along with the legislators when it comes to e-documentation instead of physical ones. “We see countries moving now - Singapore, India are good examples - that will enable the digital exchange of documents.”

Andre Simha, chief Information officer, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), recently said the shipping industry has made progress in digitalisation “but is moving very very slowly.” He added that the industry needs to find a better way to communicate with each other.

MSC recently adopted the standardised 9-character Bureau International des Containers (BIC) Facility Code (BFC), which were harmonised in a joint project between BIC and DCSA, for all its depots.

Just like airports worldwide have the three-letter IATA codes, all MSC’s depots are now identifiable with a 9-character BFC, moving one step further on the digitalisation journey, an official statement said.

APM Terminals, a part of A.P. Moller-Maersk, recently signed a deal with port equipment manufacturer Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company (ZPMC) as part of its strategy of “Safer, Better, Bigger.”

The agreement includes an order for 18 Ship-to Shore (STS) cranes and nine yard cranes across six terminals and the reservation of production slots for an additional 25 STS cranes and 62 yard cranes in the future. "The focus of this memorandum is the joint development and deployment of a wide range of automated solutions, including automated container handling equipment," the APM Terminals statement said.

“Port automation includes the digitalisation of commercial, planning and support functions, optimisation of operations like yard planning, container positioning etc, automation of noncargo handling processes at the port like gate processes, identification, scanning and truck routing etc. and automation of cargo handling (both ship side and yard side),” said Sai Krishna, assistant vice president & sector head, corporate ratings, ICRA, an investment information and ratings agency.

“Of these, Indian ports have focused in the last few years on digitalisation and non-cargo handling process automation. The Sagarmala project of the government includes various projects of port modernisation along with several other initiatives such as RFID based gate automation system, e-delivery order through PCS made mandatory along with e-invoicing and e-payments, container scanners for faster clearance etc. The projects are in various stages of implementation at major ports and the trend is expected to continue. The disruptions caused by Covid-19 is also expected to support the need for increased adoption of automation measures. However, while there has been increasing mechanisation of cargo handling in the last two decades, increased automation of cargo handling functions may not happen in the near-to-medium term.”

Andre Simha of MSC, recently said the shipping industry has made progress in digitalisation “but is moving very very slowly.”

The Port of Gothenburg recently launched the Port Optimizer track & trace app to make it easier for freight owners and rail and terminal operators to track freight in real-time from the quayside to inland destination.

“We are thrilled to be part of the Port of Gothenburg’s digitalisation journey, setting new standards for cargo traceability," said Nalin Jain, president, digital electronics, Wabtec Corporation which has developed the app. "Port Optimizer enables a ground-breaking level of collaboration among supply chain stakeholders, including cargo owners, rail operators, truckers, and terminal operators, enabling maximum port throughput and delivery performance.”

Malta Freeport Terminals selected Cisco Ultra Reliable Wireless Backhaul (Formerly Fluid Mesh), a software offered by Cisco, for connecting all the port’s onthe-move assets including the quayside cranes, RTGs, and yard equipment.

Adani Ports, India's biggest private sector port company, has invested in futuristic and next-generation infrastructure and invested in the convergence of modern technologies focused on speed, security, scalability, efficiency and experience. "We are developing global standard nextgeneration, smart and futuristic ports with deep drafts, highly mechanised and energy efficient terminals, multimodal connectivity and modern IT systems. We are building a scalable system that facilitates seamless information flow and faster decision-making, leveraging IoT, Cloud, Big Data, Analytics, Mobility and Information Security. We are building simplified, intelligent and integrated businesses, powered by data-driven insights and technologies. Technology helps us to attain higher efficiencies and deliver better customer experiences," Adani Ports said in its annual report for the year 2019-20.

Adani uses remotely operated robotic e-RTG (cranes) that can be operated from any part of the world, enhancing their technology quotient and making infrastructure futuristic. They are also using a container position detection system that modified the existing e-RTGs to account for 50,000 possibilities of a container in the yard and relay to the Terminal Operating System (TOS), avoiding delays and errors (the system provides a position of the hoist, trolley, gantry stack, yard and yard block using a combination of laser sensors).

Adani Ports has introduced an antilift mechanism for twin 20ft containers by introducing a photo sensor in the management of RTGs equipped to lift two 20 feet containers together.

The Port of Rotterdam, on the other hand, has developed a modular management system Portmaster. "Based on big data and AI, it provides accurate information about, among other things, vessel times of arrival and departure," Jan Gardeitchik, Business Development Manager Digital at the Port of Rotterdam Authority said in an online post. Portmaster can also keep track of information about cargo - which cargo is on board, or, in the case of cruise ships, how many people are on board.

"Quays, berths and other port infrastructure can be digitally mapped in Portmaster and linked to information about accessibility and availability. How long is a quay or berth? What is the water depth? When was the last dredging work performed for the quay and what is the maintenance status?," the port said on its website.

Rotterdam Port is also marketing Portmaster as a service to other port authorities under the name PortForward that enables small and large ports to gradually increase their digitalisation.

PortXchange, developed by Port of Rotterdam, provides shipping companies, agents, terminals and other service providers with a shared platform they can use to exchange information about their port calls.

"As soon as the estimated time of arrival (ETA) is known, the vessel is assigned its own timeline in PortXchange. The timeline displays all events during the port call: from the vessel’s arrival and stay in the port to its departure from the port."

PortXchange combines public data, data retrieved directly from participating companies and forecasts from AI applications to generate extremely accurate information about a port call. It, however, does not share any information about the cargo.

As many as 80 percent of the 230,000 port calls the Harbour Master receives annually at the Port of Rotterdam have now been automated. "In September, the Port of Rotterdam Authority installed the world's first 3D-printed steel bollards on the new quay in the Sleepboothaven at Rotterdam Heijplaat. The six bollards are part of a series of 12 3D-printed bollards that the Port Authority and RAMLAB have developed together. The 3D printing of bollards is part of the infrastructure innovation programme in which the Port Authority aims to improve the construction and use of port infrastructure and make it more sustainable by means of scientific research, innovation and digitalisation," the port said in its Q3 throughput report.

An enterprise business system is being implemented at five major Indian ports (Mumbai , Chennai, Deendayal, Paradip, Kolkata,including Haldia) to provide a digital port ecosystem, Krishna said. “JNPT was a pioneer among major ports in adoption of these measures and has witnessed improvement in performance due to the same,” he added.

Key challenges in port automation
Challenges during port automation include resistance from the workforce, especially at the major ports, lack of skilled manpower, issues of coordination between various stakeholders in the logistics value chain and implementation issues for an operational port that could face dilemma of whether or not to sacrifice capacity, productivity and/or revenue to implement automation measures amid active operations, Krishna said.

“While the above challenges are for process automation and digitalisation, shifting to a full-fledged cargo automation has other challenges including high upfront capital cost and political risks associated with opposition from labour unions etc. Further, such automation may also entail significant reconfiguration of a terminal amid existing, and ongoing, handling operations.”

Automation of cargo handling functions can entail high capital costs. For e.g. for fully automated container terminals, the capital cost can be between $2 million and $4 million per acre, Krishna said.

Tech company offerings
Seoul, South Korea-based Cyberlogitec has been offering an Internet-enabled TOS like OPUS Terminal M that facilitates terminals to shift away from the traditional, on-site hosted environment to cloud-based, SaaS offering. "Terminals can thus spread out IT expenditure and concentrate investments towards infrastructural assets needed for terminal operations," according to information available on the company website.

OPUS Terminal M, Cyberlogitec claims, is a multipurpose TOS that can handle all types of cargo operations – from containers to general cargo, bulk (solid and liquid) to RORO. "With 3D visualisation, OPUS Terminal M allows terminals to view their yard situation from various angles and run filters to group containers and cargo according to pre-set criteria."

CyberLogitec is also promoting Eagle Eye, a data visualisation and IoT platform that can work with any TOS. "Eagle Eye provides real-time assets monitoring, tracking and control with its full-fledged IoT platform that supports varied RTLS (real-time location system) protocols."

Navis, an industry leader in port automation, offers digital solutions including the N4 TOS, N4 software as a service, master terminal, octopi and business continuity.

Etienne Delvallee, port equipment manager, CMA-CGM France, said at a webinar organised by the Port Equipment Manufacturers Association that innovative solutions including smart glasses, 3D printing, and drone inspections improve maintenance but called for greater standardisation.

Stephanie Krishnan, associate vice president, Asia/Pacific, IDC, said, during a Cisco-organised webinar recently that remote operations at ports, autonomous vehicles, command & control room and drones could be driving data traffic volumes at smart ports.

"The more data the greater the ability to simulate, test and plan for outcomes. Business partners will expect and demand increased data integration and automation.”

Ports and companies in the supply chain need to create a strategic plan for technology, Krishnan said. "Have a digital strategy and road map that aligns with overall organizational strategy. IDC's research shows that 73 percent of organisations lack an operations' road map for implementing their digital strategy. Develop a plan to allow continuous innovation and integration. This allows a steady stream of development and road map for planning to support operational resiliency."

Efficient terminal operations are getting complex and challenging due to growing volume, increased costs due to disruptions and cyber security concerns, said Don Leyn, specialist in ports & terminals, Cisco recently at a webinar on "Modernize your ports & terminals."

Leyn added that terminal automation and digitisation requires high bandwidth, ultra-low latency with fast-handoffs and security leading to a challenging environment.

Shipping minister Sarbanand Sonowal recently launched a port mobile application called MyPortApp. The app will cover all port details digitally and monitor operations virtually. It will have various information like vessel berthing, rake & indent, rake receipt, container status, tariff, bills, port holidays and more and can be accessed anywhere 24x7.

Digital innovations for the Port of Hamburg were the main topics of conversation at the recently concluded ITS World Congress 2021 in Hamburg, Germany. HomePort, the innovation campus of the Hamburg Port Authority (HPA) at the exhibition, displayed new technologies - 3D printing, sensor technology and underwater and surface drones - being tested at the port. "Experimenting together and forging alliances is the future of the port. The use of drones, for example, is one of the key innovations for tomorrow," according to the video released by the Hamburg Port Authority.

HPA is focused on three areas - infrastructure management, traffic management and quantum computing to control the whole port area.

So, digitalisation of ports across the world is progressing at a fast clip, which will gain momentum in the coming days.

This article was originally published in Indian Transport & Logistics News' November - December 2021 issue.

Jyothi Shankaran

Jyothi Shankaran

Associate Editor, STAT Media Group. He has worked with IndiaSpend, Bloomberg TV, Business Standard and Indian Express Group. Jyothi can be reached at

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