Ready or not
Building ports ‘future ready’ is becoming harder to achieve, finds Felicity Landon
The rapid advance of digitalisation, 3D printing, automation, electrification, nanotechnology, changing trade patterns, climate change … being future ready is more of a challenge than ever before for today’s ports.
As consultant and port expert Marco Pluijm puts it: “In the past, masterplanning was always about commerce – how much business do we expect and when will it come; when do we make the next investment and which customers will come after that? These days it is about a huge variety of factors. Masterplanning needs to be less traditional and more multi-condition focused than in the past.
“Masterplanning has always been an art," he continues, but "today, masterplanning exercises have to be much more flexible than they were. And where masterplans used to look at the next 20 to 25 years, today you are looking at ten years – or only five in some cases.”
Mr Pluijm, who specialises in coastal management and environmental issues, highlights the physical challenges, in particular the impact of climate change on operational conditions. “There are a lot of mooring problems caused by more swell and long-wave energy. Rainfall is becoming a bigger issue with the loading of iron ore, for example, because of the moisture content; you have to take additional precautions with bulk loading.”
Port construction is being designed and adapted to cope with climate change, and bolt-on solutions such as special fenders can be used to solve problems, says Mr Pluijm – but, he adds, there are certain areas of the world where a port shouldn’t be built at all: "because eventually, it will be dead in the street because of climate change".
Feats of engineering
Engineering considerations are perhaps the area where the conservative ports sector feels most at home. But beyond that, there’s a whole raft of disruption ahead.
Australia’s Aurecon is focusing strongly on its Future Ready concept, which it says was instrumental in its design of the award-winning Gabbro Berth Terminal expansion at the Port of Umm Sa’id in Qatar.
Is being future-ready more important now than in the past? “Yes, absolutely,” says John McGuire, Aurecon’s chief innovation officer. “Supply chains around the world are going to be reshaped and remapped over the next ten to 15 years. There will be winners and losers. Technology has a habit of creeping up on you. And we are approaching a time of unprecedented change.
“It’s a basic reality that economies and countries are competing against each other. Now look into the future, where products and some services are going to be very easy to replicate at a rapid pace – think of 3D printing, Building Information Modelling (BIM), immersive visualisation. Maybe in the future it will not be the products themselves competing but the supply chain competing. How quickly can I get that product out to the customers and how quickly can I get the raw materials in? In a world where patents are not really giving you a long runway anymore, it is probably more about speed to market.”
As a consequence, he says, economies are looking to enhance their infrastructure – "and ports and maritime sit squarely in that space".
Port operators and owners should be asking – how can we make our port ready so it is capable for the future? “Future Ready is about that concept in totality,” says Mr McGuire. “It’s about the advent of digitalisation, different forms of manufacture, automated vehicles, nanotechnologies, and being able to respond – and that means using intelligent design and innovation. Infrastructure in the past, whether road or port, involved pretty much inanimate objects. Now we are moving into a space where inanimate becomes animate and intelligent and can interact with other parts. Will ports be ready for that?”
The first and vital step, he says, is to imagine it and debate what the possibilities will be. “And this will be more important than ever because we are seeing more and more of these technologies starting to converge. The infrastructure owner needs to ask: ‘How is this going to change my business? These are technologies happening outside my control. But what does that mean if one of my current competitors adopts these technologies ahead of me?’"
Many people automatically jump to the technical solution but, he warns: “At the end of any piece of infrastructure, whether port or road, building or energy/water network, there is typically a human trying to use it in some shape or form. The success of the technology you adopt depends on whether the human is able to use it, actually understands it and finds it meaningful to them. If it doesn’t engage people, if it isn’t intuitive and making their life better, then it is likely to be a technology failure. The smartest piece of technology is only just a good idea, unless people absorb it.”
Mr Pluijm agrees: “It is only innovation when people accept it.” And he does have reservations. “Technology is always in contradiction with the human factor. It usually also rules out real expertise because of the attitude ‘it is in the computer so it must be true’."
Back to basics
So far as coastal engineering is concerned, he says: “We need to go back to basics. Kids with square eyes from so long on their computer games often have absolutely no clue about the real outcome.”
Given the relentless advances, ports must think carefully to avoid ending up a ‘stranded asset’, says Mr McGuire. “This is about mindset. Ports need to have a posture of constantly challenging the status quo and asking, how can this be done better, is there another way, how do I differentiate myself?”
He says that with good engineers, he is confident that despite physical constraints in an existing port, the ‘digital overlay’ can be achieved. “In short, what is it that would have manufacturers and the supply chain queuing up to use your port? They want to know that your port is going to be reliable, with no issues. We have a responsibility to be talking about these technologies and working out a way of adapting and embracing them in the most sensitive, logical, responsible way possible.”
HEDGING BETS IN FUTURE-READY PORT CONSTRUCTION
When it comes to port expansion projects, there can sometimes be a good case for sticking with what has gone before and not trying to introduce different ways of doing things just for the sake of it, says Jonathan Tyler, director – port planning, maritime, at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff.
There is also, he says, a reluctance among ports to be the pioneer. “If you go ahead with something not done before and it doesn’t work out, that will itself be very expensive to correct. Often clients say they understand why something could be good and potentially save money – ‘but after my neighbour has done it successfully for 20 years – I don’t want to be the pioneer’.”
The pace of change is even making people question investment in LNG bunkering. “I had a discussion about whether LNG is going to be like VHS vs Betamax, where a good solution is taken over by something else – for example, fuel cell and battery technology. Five to ten years on, could an investment in LNG have been a complete waste of money? Do they go for LNG bunkering or not? The answer is to try at least not to preclude any of those things.”
He highlights a number of areas where ports can at least hedge their bets. The cost of building a quay a few metres longer now would be a fraction of the cost of extending it in a whole new project later. Is the new quay going to be deep enough? If deeper berths may be required later on, it’s important that the structure is designed to enable further dredging.
The push towards electrification of port equipment and possible cold-ironing are other areas to consider, even if plans are not going forward immediately: “When undertaking any form of paving project, it’s very cheap at the time to lay a lot of horizontal plastic ducts so that at some point in the future you can simply pull cables through. Having to dig up paving later is far more expensive than installing the ducts in the first place.
“If you are considering electrifying RTGs but don’t want to convert yet, or want to consider cold-ironing later, the answer is to put in lots of ducts and access chambers in sensible places so that at the right time you can easily install the cables and infrastructure at minimum cost and disruption.”
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