Lifting the data curtain

Partnership: the ATOM team worked with APM Terminals to improve productivity at its Maasvlakte II hub. Credit: APM Terminals Partnership: the ATOM team worked with APM Terminals to improve productivity at its Maasvlakte II hub. Credit: APM Terminals

Carly Fields learns about ATOM’s mission to improve automation experiences

When Navis first introduced its incubator-cum-innovator-cum-optimiser lab, ATOM Labs, back in June 2016, it was a tentative step into optimising automation experiences for container terminals. Now with a team of 10, and more developers joining, its brief is far wider, covering three streams: user experience, data and connectivity, and extending its focus to digitalisation.

The Cargotec group, parent of Navis, has realised the worth of the start-up and now meshes ATOM’s applied research and innovation with its other subsidiaries, taking it beyond Navis and making it a valuable asset to the entire group.

Oscar Pernia, vice president of terminal operational innovation, heads up the ATOM team. “ATOM is finding its way and is now not just a Navis project,” he says. “We are now useful to the whole Cargotec corporation and that’s a fantastic feeling.” What has helped is ATOM’s bringing together of people with experience in terminals coupled with operational experience with functional integration. This includes Mr Pernia himself, who spent seven years at Algeciras Bay Port Authority and a further three at TTI Algeciras before joining Navis.

Today, ATOM has a pool of experts and developers around the world, maintaining its focus on software. Day-to-day, it works in ‘innovation cells’ that have an iteration and learning cycle of just two weeks using Agile sprints while implementing prototypes – so if they are heading in the wrong direction, they find out quickly. It also doesn’t rigidly stick to one methodology; it uses design methodologies, lean UI (user interface), Agile and so on depending on the demands of the project.  “For me, it’s more about innovation as a process; prototyping is just a vehicle to drive validated learning with customers,” says Mr Pernia. “To succeed you have to fail, and by leveraging customer engagement in our initiatives we improve the discovery process before software features and integrations are defined – that is a big message for ATOM.”

Productivity focus

One of its roles is to work with automated terminals that are not getting the levels of productivity that they expected, trying to “align perspectives”. A clear example is the work at APM Terminals Maasvlakte II terminal where ATOM methodology and tools were applied to assess why the terminal was not performing at 40 moves per hour. On investigation, its Process Improvement Tool (PIT) found that while the Navis TOS collected a lot of information and time stamps, the data was not put to good use. ATOM’s tool was able to take that raw data, turn it into usable information and provide sense to those components to improve the correlation between root-cause, process capabilities and software improvements.  

Patrick Brehmer, functional expert at ATOM, leading the collaboration with APMT and product owner for the PIT tool, says that “when using data, consistency and repeatability are needed. When we started we found that we and the customer were perception driven and that needed to change. We needed to engage the customer and make the software more resilient and intelligent. Algorithms work well, but you have to keep tweaking them and tuning them yourself.” ATOM Labs also established a communication channel back from the user group to further improve its tool and create a feedback loop to speed things up. “Then you can better prioritise where to focus,” he says. This feedback loop has proved to be particularly important – and has proven that in many cases it is the learning process, not the automation solution, that is lacking.

“Most of the customers that are using data are really just gathering it, and collecting reports. But this is not about just gathering data, this is a discovery journey. Some customers get this easily, for others it is really difficult. That’s the missing link, the data-driven mindset.” This, Mr Brehmer believes, can be a generational problem, where port workers involved in automation are used to letting intuition and past experiences to drive their decisions. “We need to move from automation to real operational intelligence; combining different data sources effectively to integrate decisions for improved operations within terminal and creating learning feedback loops from execution to planning processes,” he says. Looking ahead, the ATOM Labs team are investigating artificial intelligence and machine learning; both will be important themes for them in 2018.  

Control room focus

The TOS user interface is another area that Mr Pernia’s team will focus on in 2018. Here, Arno Larooij, terminal operations expert at ATOM, is on a mission to bring the user to the fore. He complains that in current terminal control rooms there is no integration of user interfaces, meaning that the onus is on the user to try and figure out how to put meaning to the information in front of him or her.

“Our vision is that with the different applications forming the terminal eco-system, the visibility about what’s going on in operations will come from different sources and will be converted into meaningful information in the One Terminal control room user experience,” he says.

“Right now, the databases of the TOS, ECS and CMS are disconnected, hence the user is navigating through different interfaces and getting confused easily.” The focus is to change the user paradigm, starting with the control room organisation. “From our conversations with automation experts at global terminal operators, there is an overall sentiment that today the impact of user reaction times and lack of proactive behaviours in operational productivity is around 30% of the current improvement margin,” says Mr Larooij.

The user experience can be viewed as the forgotten piece in the journey to the automation promised land, he continues. “Equipment, process and decision automation must be combined to completely transform the user experience at terminals, covering the operations control room and the work and information flow with the different departments in contact with operations.” ATOM Labs aims, along with Navis and Kalmar experts, to have a first working prototype with TOS and ECS simulated data operational by the end of the year.


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