A common objective

Connecting the strands will improve terminal technology communications

Connecting the strands will improve terminal technology communications

Port Strategy talked to Kari Rintanen, Chair of the PEMA Technology Working Group on Software Interface Standards, about the Association’s initiative to develop common industry standards for the integration of TOS and process automation technology

Q: What is the industry background to this new initiative from PEMA?

KR: Recent years have seen the rapid adoption of a wide range of process automation and machine-to-machine communications in the container terminal industry. This applies both to traditional manned terminals and of course for highly automated driverless operations. Today, technologies such as DGPS, OCR, RFID, laser and infrared are used on cranes and other container handling equipment (CHEs), plus terminal vehicles, to automate or semi-automate common terminal processes. This includes locating containers and CHEs in the yard and under quay cranes and sending transport orders to handling equipment and vehicles.

Process automation has come a long way since the first “driver interface”, when screens and keyboards were installed in cabs to communicate job orders. As one example, it is now possible for twistlock operations to be actively controlled, preventing drivers from picking up the wrong container, or dropping it in the wrong location. We can expect the application of process automation technologies to continue becoming more sophisticated and widespread in the years to come.


Q: So why has this prompted PEMA to launch a working group on software interface standards?

KR: TOS software is developed by a number of commercial companies and in some cases by terminal operators themselves. Interfacing software for real time positioning and control systems is programmed by several automation manufacturers and also by CHE providers. These software packages need to communicate correctly with each other. Currently, however, the communication protocols are highly vendor-specific. As a result, the installation and maintenance of software is frequently time-consuming, costly and complex.

Developing common industry interfaces between the various TOS software and CHE process automation software will benefit the entire industry in reducing development and maintenance work. If you look around the world in general, certainly it can be seen that ease of interoperability is a hallmark of maturing technology sectors. While it is a simplified analogy, you would not expect to have to reconfigure your PC operating system every time that you added a new peripheral device. If we also consider that in future years even more new technologies, and new applications of technology, will emerge we can see that the current challenges are only likely to increase over time.

As a neutral industry body with members representing TOS and other advanced IT providers, process automation suppliers and crane and equipment builders, PEMA believes that it has an important role to play in responding to growing calls from industry – both terminal operators and the equipment and technology suppliers – for greater standardisation in this area.


Q: Is the trend towards driverless automated equipment especially significant?

KR: Yes, it is. Driverless operation basically requires replacing human thought and actions with dedicated software. As a result, there is a need for additional functionalities between the CHE on-board control system software (e.g. PLC) and TOS. In some cases, the TOS is able to connect directly with the CHEs, but in other cases an additional layer of software - or middleware - is required. Middleware may typically be used in an automated operation to address issues such as route planning, deadlock resolution and safety features. Therefore for driverless operations, we face even more layers of software that need to seamlessly connect and interact. On the other hand, some things are in fact easier. Drivers of vehicles may improvise container moves, but computers cannot. This is a fundamental difference.


Q: How is it envisaged that the new PEMA standard will function in practice and what are the main challenges in developing it?

KR: PEMA’s core proposal is to standardise the logical communications interface between the TOS, CHE software and middleware, supporting commonly used concepts and practices and allowing for the flexible implementation of container handling operations.

In practice, this means developing a standard set of interface messages that encompass the full range of manned and driverless equipment, including RTGs, RMGs, ASCs, straddle carriers, reachstackers, lift trucks and AGVs. The interface specifications should also be suitable for terminal tractors, ship-to-shore cranes and hand-held terminals. Additionally, we need to accommodate different approaches to the communications architecture between TOS, CHE software and middleware, as these are individual choices for a terminal operator and its suppliers to make.

With so many variables to consider, accurately mapping the process flow of information in the different scenarios is a critical aspect of development. As far as possible, standards must also be ‘technology neutral’, focusing on the generic nature and function of the information to be transmitted rather than the detail of which process technology is used. In other words, the specific positioning and identification technology used (GPS, RFID, OCR etc.) should not affect the common message information content.

It is vital that any standard should be applicable to all common modes of operation, without giving any preference to a particular way of doing things. As you may imagine, this is a complex challenge.


Q: How confident are you of success?

KR: I cannot speak for the eventual industry adoption, but in terms of the development we have had positive feedback from several key companies who have indicated that similar ‘standard TOS interfaces’ or ‘virtual terminal interfaces’ are already used by them. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the members of the technology working group, and PEMA as a whole, are fully committed to creating something of real and lasting value for the entire terminal industry.

Kari Rintanen is chairman of the PEMA Technology Working Group on Software Interface Standards and manager, Port Technology Research at Konecranes. Founded in 2004, PEMA provides a forum and public voice for the global port equipment and technology sectors. The Association has seen strong growth in recent years, and now has nearly 70 member companies representing all facets of the industry, including crane, equipment and component manufacturers; automation, software and technology providers; consultants and other experts. www.pema.org. For more information, please contact Rachael White, PEMA Secretary General at: Tel +44 203 327 0577 | rachael.white@pema.org

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