Berth scheduling must be cohesive and carefully planned, not left to chance, finds John Bensalhia
Pi, the Pythagoras Theorem are both mathematical concepts that have challenged many a mind. For ports however, one stratagem stands out: “Berth scheduling is one of the classic mathematical scheduling conundrums," asserts Simon Shore, managing director of Cirrus Logistics.
Mr Shore sums up the importance of cohesive berth scheduling: “It is acknowledged that the prime real estate of a port is continually adapting to the global supply chains ebb and flow and ever increasing vessel sizes and the need for ports to provide a high level of service to their customers in a competitive maritime world.
"All of which must be accommodated with existing infrastructure or longer term building projects. The management of the quay wall has never been more important as quite literally this is the place where 'the plan becomes reality'. A port’s ability to manage this process is critical to the efficiency of the wider multi-modal supply chain.”
Cirrus Logistics conducted a survey with Portsmouth University to assess the main challenges of vessel call planning. The survey spotlighted three key areas. Firstly, it suggested that the industry is not well served by technology. Mr Shore comments: “Only 24% of our respondents use an IT system to plan the berth and over 50% rely on manual processes to recalculate the schedule.”
The survey also raised concerns over the challenges of accommodating and processing even larger vessels. And finally, it found that customers are demanding an improvement in service levels which must be attained with an increase in traffic.
So how can port operators overcome these challenges? John Hunter of Armor Business Solutions says: “Certain elements need to come together: reliable vessel scheduling advice from shipping lines; adequate berthing resources from the port; available berth at the stevedore; and the reliable performance by the stevedore.”
Port of call
Mr Hunter says that advice from the shipping line regarding arrival and expected cargo exchange is key. “Terminals routinely talk to the previous port and so can have an idea of approximate arrival time and the discharge volume, but are absolutely dependent upon the ship operator for accurate advice: exact arrival time, exact cargo exchange and any other advice e.g. engine repairs or special cargo.” Mr Hunter adds that flexibility is required in order to deal with sudden, unexpected events such as strikes or adverse weather. Operational problems can also affect the stevedore, such as lack of berth availability or the availability of a berth in the wrong place for the load cargo already stored in the terminal.
Mr Shore says that the majority of ports are managing effective berth scheduling by ensuring that they build in spare capacity to accommodate unplanned events or schedules based on simple contractual rules. However, this can create issues. “Schedules can take significant effort to produce manually: as a result updates may be issued on an infrequent basis, so stake-holders are not up to date with the latest position,” says Mr Shore. “The result of this approach is that the quay is underutilised and the port is not operating at 100% capacity.”
Many stevedores have introduced ‘berth windows’, a guarantee of a berth providing that the vessel operator meets certain performance standards. The aim of berth windows is not only to provide reliability to the stevedore and vessel operator but also to other parties, such as importers, exporters and transport operators.
Another effective solution is the truck booking system. “This is because for a terminal to be able to discharge and load cargo efficiently, cargo has to also move out of or into the terminal on the landside just as efficiently,” says Mr Hunter. “The terminal is effectively a pipeline and the cargo is the water flowing through the pipe; the pipe has to have sufficient capacity to take the flow and the diameter of the pipe has to be the same at each end, otherwise there will be a blockage somewhere. Truck booking systems help to regulate the arrival and departure of trucks/trains, preventing blockages in the landside exchange.”
Mr Shore argues that the best method of ensuring effective berth scheduling is having the capability to model scenarios in the long, medium and short terms. “This allows the terminal operator to take a 12-month view when negotiating contracts and service levels and then switch to a 48-hour window to accommodate the late or new vessel requests. The effectiveness of the schedule will depend upon the system’s ability to accurate model all of the constraints and features of the port.”
With respect to technology, some software packages feature berth planning modules. Mr Hunter says that the right package can help in various ways. “A system using a mixture of live and historical data can provide a tool that can place ships on the berth; it can predict the optimum area of the yard to use for the predicted exchange; it can predict how long the ship will be on the berth.”
However, the issue with technology is while it can provide a plan, it cannot take into account unforeseen variables such as employee performance or equipment failure. “The system can make allowances for any one of these events but as a series of events come together, their cumulative impact becomes more and more unpredictable,” says Mr Hunter.
“Where the terminal is more or less totally automated, the computer is more able to predict what will happen as it is controlling equipment, job assignments and so on. On the downside, the computer can only provide solutions based upon its software program.”
But, Mr Hunter adds that human interaction with the computer means that people can provide innovative solutions to unforeseen problems. Cirrus, for example, has provided solutions that balance human and machine decision making, such as SEABERTH.
Paint a picture
Furthermore, a new initiative has been introduced that could radically change berth scheduling methods. Known as the MONALISA project, the iniative was prompted by the Swedish Maritime Administration. In January 2013, 15 of the world’s largest e-navigation system makers came together to allow the MONALISA system to work across all hardware. This means that ports can receive a ship’s precise arrival time as soon as it has left the previous port. This project has been extended (named MONALISA 2.0) and the latest extension takes results and experiences from the development in the aviation sector and the SESAR air traffic management programme and re-uses them.
The right technology can boost berth scheduling practices. Since computers can store huge quantities of data, they can hold current inputs and historical information. Mr Hunter says that this data can be overlaid with terminal constraints or requirements with accurate end results.
“Such a model could not only enable terminal staff to place ships on the berth in the most optimal way; it could also be used to construct ‘what if’ scenarios e.g. when trying to win a new service which requests a particular berthing window or berth, to see what the impact on terminal operations might be.”
Mr Hunter adds that this could also assist with revenue/budget. “The model could be used in the preparation of forward budgets, by predicting what ships will berth when, and with what cargo (and therefore what revenue and costs). Such information could also be used to audit current operations e.g. comparing what the ship was predicted to earn versus how much was actually invoiced. In this way, the terminal can minimise revenue leakage.”
Such technological practices can considerably help berth scheduling, and with greater inroads such as the MONALISA project, port operators look set to deal with this sector in a logical, ordered fashion. With technology having been an issue, new innovations are helping to rectify that problem. As Mr Shore says: “Berth scheduling is in vogue with more ports acknowledging the need to work smarter and more efficiently.”
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