A feeling of community
By sharing information in a highly integrated way, port community networks eliminate mountains of paperwork. Felicity Landon reports
In 1981, the trade sectors within the Port of Felixstowe had set up a working party to look into the possibility of developing a computerised system that would integrate shipping lines, ship agents, freight forwarders, customs brokers, trucking and rail companies, and customs, in order to eliminate unnecessary duplication in time, effort and documentation.
Two years ago, the Felixstowe system was completely rewritten and relaunched as Destin8. It is used in a good number of UK ports and inland clearance locations - most recently adding Greenock and Great Yarmouth to the list of clients.
Today, it is hard to imagine a port of any substance operating without such a system, whether it is tailor-made for the specific port, or supplied by a company such as MCP.
However, there are varying degrees of system, of course.
According to Tom de Smedt, sales manager at Belgium's Phaeros: "As far as we know, a large number of ports do not have e-networks. Many ports will have some kind of system to communicate, but only a few have truly integrated solutions."
"It would be a nightmare trying to operate without a port community system," adds Jose García, technological innovation manager for valenciaportpcs.net, the platform created by the Spain's Port of Valencia.
"One hundred to 150 containers - no problem, you can do it by paper and customs can check things in ten minutes. But not when you have more than 3,000 containers arriving on one ship."
Ignacio Huet, terminal manager at Maritima Valenciana, says: "Valenciaportpcs.net exploitation is really intense. Nowadays, our servers process more than 10,000 daily messages."
Constant refinement of the system is essential, says Mr García: "For every single euro you invest in this kind of system, you are saving more than ¢100 in infrastructure investments," he says. "It may seem simpler and easier to provide the infrastructure but the best thing is to work efficiently.
"We look for the bottlenecks that cost the port community money and try to solve them. Of course, when you solve one thing you know there is something else; one thing we can be sure of, the development will never end."
One of the key developments valenciaportpcs.net is working on is the automating and expanding customs control within the system. This has already been achieved for exports; work is ongoing to achieve fully automated paperless import procedures too.
The idea is to use OCR (optical character recognition) of the truck's licence plate and the container number - if all is in order, the gate will automatically open. A pilot project is under way, and the plan is to implement the new system in 2010, says Mr García.
Valencia is also looking to expand its coverage geographically. In particular, it is keen to develop integrated links with the Madrid logistics/rail hub, to allow customs clearance procedures to be carried out inland, at less cost and more efficiently than at a busy sea port, says Mr García.
Trials are under way to see how containers travelling inland by rail can be managed in the same way as those aboard a feeder vessel.
"We believe that if the system is fully electronic, it doesn't matter whether the customs declaration is in one place or the other. If the railway guarantees that the container will be moved to the inspection place, it doesn't matter whether you do that in Valencia or Madrid 250 miles away."
Aspects of valenciaportpcs.net system are currently being trialled in a pilot exercise by the Port of Melbourne in Australia and Mr García says he is also in talks with other ports in Europe and Latin America.
The team is planning a trip to Korea and China to set up agreements with three e-commerce platforms in the region, to expand the tracking and tracing function for users back in Valencia.
Changes in legislation require rapid response by the port community systems - for example, MCP is finalising details to accommodate new customs requirements for pre-departure information from importers into the EU.
More than 70% of UK container traffic goes through Destin8, says MCP general manager Alan Long.
Destin8, just like its predecessor, provides for the electronic exchange of information between all port sectors. The reason for the change was to move on to a modern technical platform; FCPS was mainframe-based, while Destin8 is server-based, with very simple communication routes.
However, a key aim was to avoid any upheaval and achieve a seamless changeover that users would scarcely notice, says Mr Long. "Destin8 is user-friendly, very simple to use - primarily because it was developed by the people who were eventually going to use it, rather than developed by a software house," he says. "We regularly have users from the various shipping lines coming into discuss any changes - we try to run everything major past our users to make sure we are going the right thing."
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