Dark clouds persist on economic horizon

ONE predicts a slowdown but not a slump. Credit: ONE
ONE predicts a slowdown but not a slump. Credit: ONE
A 'digital twin' can help optimise port layout
A 'digital twin' can help optimise port layout

Carly Fields hears that a global economic recovery is far from assured in 2019

While the sky “isn’t falling in”, as one speaker put it, there was a definite air of negativity concerning the global economic outlook at TOC Asia’s conference in Singapore.

Alan Murphy, director for Asia at Sea-Intelligence Maritime Analysis, led the charge for the doubters, stating that he was “relatively pessimistic on demand growth”.

With the first two months of the year off to a bad start, Mr Murphy pointed to an “outright contraction” in demand growth. Noting this is not a “good thing”, he added: “If you are giving away money every time you move a container you are no longer a company, you are a charity. This is not a long-term survival strategy.”

Mr Murphy’s doubts echo the International Monetary Fund’s cut to its outlook for global growth, pitching it at its lowest since the global financial crisis. It now expects the world economy to grow 3.3% this year, down from the 3.5% it forecast for 2019. The IMF puts this down to a weaker outlook for the majority of advanced economies. The IMF’s chief economist Gita Gopinath described this as a “delicate moment” for the global economy and warned that a pickup in growth next year is far from assured.

But other panellists at TOC Asia, while acknowledging a slowdown, were less convinced that things were as bad as Mr Murphy made out.

Amazon executive Jim Lim agreed there was pessimism in the air, but was quick to remind listeners that one quarter does not represent the whole year. A “good balance of supply demand” could well drag the sector back to more palatable levels, he noted.

Ocean Network Express (ONE) chief executive moved further along the spectrum stating that he expects “relatively steady demand growth for years to come” and while he conceded that the market is facing a slowdown in economic activity, he said that he doesn’t believe it is a slump.

Smart thinking

When the discussion moved to smart ports, there was an expectation that the mood would be lifted. But instead there were more stark warnings on not undertaking digital projects lightly. First up, Jonathan Beard, a partner in the infrastructure advisory at EY, was quick to note that digitalisation offers many more opportunities to connect parties, but, he warned, if “it goes down, it goes down badly”. He advised that tech solutions be driven by customer need rather than by a solution looking for a problem. “Future-proofing is far from easy,” he added. “It’s not easy to see where the return on investment is.”

Mr Beard asked ports whether they should “do the same a bit better, or reach for a paradigm shift? First mover if you get it right is great. If you get it wrong, it’s embarrassing. Be careful of being too clever.” He told delegates that ports of the future will ultimately need to do more with less.

And smart isn’t just about automation. It’s about a change of mindset, according to Jeroen Overbeek, senior project manager for maritime and waterways at Royal HaskoningDHV.

Speaking at the event he said that a port might invest in an automated crane, but that does not make it a smart port.

“Digitalisation is a means to an end,” he said. “It should be something that helps you, not just be smart or sexy. It’s not just about smart and useful hardware.”

Mr Overbeek urged the use of a ‘digital twin’ to help optimise layout, describing this complete digital model as the “holy grail” to help optimise your operations.

There was discussion also on what the port of tomorrow will look like. The general consensus was not all that different. However Mr Overbeek predicted some fundamental changes that will need to be considered. “It will look a lot like the port of today, but it will be operated in a very different way, by different people with different skill sets and by equipment that runs very differently,” he said. Therefore, port designers and operators need to think about where they want to go from here. “All these building blocks are here, but there are so many and unless you have an idea of where you want to be, what you want to do and how you want to measure that, you can invest in lots of nice toys and never get anywhere,” Mr Overbeek said.

Technology diversion

Another panellist pointed out that having the best technology in the world is not going to control how much freight a port handles or how much activity will pass through the port. Additionally, said David Wignall, chairman of Seaport, port authorities need to be able to justify big ticket spending on infrastructure and technology if big ships shift ports. “Ports need to think for 30, 40, 50 years, not just five years because these are major capital investments and major strategic decisions.”

He asked the audience to think about whether mega containerships might go the same way as cancelled Airbus A380 super-capacity airliners. This would lead to a shift from larger to smaller ships which are much easier for ports to handle.

Rotterdam has been pioneering moves to boost collaboration and co-creation between like-minded ports, hoping to engender that forward thinking. In fact, Raoul Tan, business manager of digital development at the port issued a call to arms at the event, inviting all delegates to “collaborate, connect … and explore how we can strengthen each other”. His team is actively looking at how to create business value for a community while at the same time reducing carbon footprint and increasing efficiency.

Today, one in every two ships is delayed, one in every four trucks on the road is empty and for a single transaction there can still be a need for over 20 parties and over 200 documents. “This was one of the key drivers for the port of Rotterdam to start a digital innovation lab where we, together with customers, develop smart solutions based on data optimisation,” said Mr Tan.

Summarising the feelings of the panel, he added that no port can be a smart port on its own; ports must connect with other connected ports to build an “end-to-end digital chain where there is huge potential for saving carbon emission and increasing efficiency”.



When it comes to creating smart ports, authorities need to be realistic on the true value of their data – or risk losing out altogether.

A panel discussion at Singapore Lloyd’s List Forum came to the conclusion that ports are often in the dark on data ownership and mistake the worth of the data they do hold.

Rajesh Unni, founder and chief executive of Synergy Marine Group, said that the biggest challenge that his group faces is that most people who ‘own’ the data don’t really own that data, “and they think that maybe if I give you the data I’m cannibalising my own data.

“That’s not the case,” he said. “It’s more about the mindset to find some value that’s hidden under the data. We are in a never-ending conversation on sharing data.”

Cris DeWitt, senior technical advisor of marine/offshore cyber security at Cyber Mariner, added that now that big data is “sexy and cool” people want to hang on to it.

Mr DeWitt also questioned whether smart is a reality. “It’s going to take time,” he said. “This is a very complex ecosystem.” He asked ports to think about what is actually being communicated between all the systems and warned of the danger of creating really complex systems. “I think software providers have to work to create systems that talk to each other,” he said.

Mr Unni suggested that if a port could just get two different systems to talk to each other and then get one to add value to the other, a port would be on the road to becoming smart.

“If we can demonstrate the value it will happen – it’s about value creation,” he said. When asked what the financial incentive is to share data, his response is “let’s create value first”.

“We need people to sit in a room and not be selfish and see how we can create value. Technology should be looked at as how you can unlock potential.”

And while there are ports investing in transformation, he called for more companies with collaborative mindsets to join the fray to really drive the revolution.


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