Ports & Terminals

Port Officials Discuss Digital Innovation Options For Supply Chain Management

New technology in some ports is allowing companies to share digital data about freight shipments, making more efficient use of their time.

Participants in the 100th annual Transportation Research Board conference, held online over the past two weeks, learned about how ports are expanding their digital footprints during a session titled “Port Community Systems And Beyond” on January 27.

The Transportation Research Board is a part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine; the  conference is the world’s largest gathering of transportation research professionals, organizers said. This year’s theme was “Launching A New Century of Mobility and Quality of Life.” More than 350 sessions and workshops took place, including more than 40 on how COVID-19 has impacted transportation and how transportation professionals and researchers are responding.

Christopher Chase, marketing director at the Port of Los Angeles, said that as the port has grown, including handling a record-breaking freight volume of 9,458,000 TEUs in 2018, officials have focused on how to better communicate, including sharing of both ideas and data.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

“We had not really done this in North America,” he said. “People had not really talked about this.”

When freight was moving between different modes of transportation, it often meant making a phone call or sending an email rather than using data management tools to keep people informed and help them plan, he said. Data was available, he said, but it wasn’t being shared between companies.

“It took time, and it was still too slow,” he said. “In this day and time, there was more technology in use delivering a pizza than there was in moving cargo or delivering a container in North America.”

Over the past few years, the Port of Los Angeles has partnered with Wabtec Corporation to offer digital solutions to clients through its PortOptimizer application. The application is designed to connect people and supply chains together to streamline services via its cloud-based Track & Trace and Control Tower cloud-based program suites.

“All of this is done trying to move our cargo more efficiently, to prepare for the future and to build up market volumes,” Chase said.

Brian Hill, senior product manager for the PortOptimizer Team at Wabtec Corporation, said the right technology can connect organizations as diverse as a shipping line, terminal, trucking company, rail, Coast Guard, a state department of transportation and local government.

“If you think about any of these individual stakeholders, they have great information for themselves, but as you start to have these groups talk to each other, that’s where things run into challenges,” he said.

Having them sharing the same data sets as cargo moves toward, through and out of a port can improve reliability, timeliness and accessibility, he said.

What PortOptimizer does is to establish a global data repository to provide accurate, actionable information and analytics, accessible to designated parties to enable innovation across a port’s supply chain, Hill said.

That includes automated processes to quickly monitor data streams, aggregation of data, advanced analytics, web applications and application integration, along with data security measures.

Among other applications, PortOptimizer allows stakeholders to see near-real-time statuses at a container level and to receive data including a container’s availability, last free day, yard locations and holds. It provides sortable/searchable results that allow users to handle exceptions as they come up. Control Tower, the newest program suite, includes dwell times, truck turn times, vessel data and port-level metrics and dashboards. Although available at the port level, Control Tower expects to launch to the public in the first quarter of 2021.

“The purpose of the app is to paint a picture of the port,” Hill said, adding that allows companies to better plan for freight moves over the coming weeks. “So if you’re a trucking company, do you have enough drivers? If you’re a rail company, do you have enough railcars?”

While programs like PortOptimizer are new to the American market, the European market has been taking advantage of digitalization for some time, said Nico De Cauwer, business architect for digitalization and port community projects at the Port of Antwerp in Belgium.

The port moved 235 million tons of freight in 2019 and takes up about 120 square kilometers with 900 companies and 143,058 jobs, nearly 5 percent of Belgium’s gross domestic product.

It is important for port officials to have conversations about how the Port of Antwerp operates that include innovation strategy and what De Cauwer called building a digital nervous system on top of a physical port, but also how that innovation adds value for the port tenants. Instead of talking about proof of concept, then, he said, they talk about proof of value.
“We call it innovation with a purpose,” De Cauwer said.

Among other technologies, the port uses drones, smart cameras and an autonomous sounding boat that measures depths. It is also launching the first commercial barges sailing in canals in the port areas and in the Flemish waterways.

“These are autonomous barges that are controlled from a distance,” De Cauwer said. “One captain of a barge can control three barges at the same time.”

The port also employs a complete network of sensors, including 250 sensor-equipped safety buoys. It also offers air quality sensors and will soon be adding water quality sensors.

“Together we want to co-create business value,” De Cauwer said. “We can’t do it alone.”