Overcoming the berth bottlenecks

Rotterdam cut waiting times by 20% just by giving everyone access to the same set of information. Credit: Port of Rotterdam
Rotterdam cut waiting times by 20% just by giving everyone access to the same set of information. Credit: Port of Rotterdam
Port optimisation schemes aim to improve the accuracy of ship arrival times
With better visibility of ship arrival times, queues to get into ports should be reduced. Credit: Carly Fields
With better visibility of ship arrival times, queues to get into ports should be reduced. Credit: Carly Fields

Charlie Bartlett explains why port call optimisation projects have much to offer all parties involved in a cargo move, including the ports themselves

Ships queueing at a port is bad for everybody. Ships lose money for every moment spent immobile, requiring fuel – often very expensive fuel, in emission control areas – to be burned to maintain their hotel load. Ports get whatever emissions the vessels happen to be putting out; and the repercussions of delays ripple outwards, increasing waiting times for other ships in the queue, and across the port’s other transport modes. Thus, the imperative is to ensure that absolutely every port call is akin to a Formula 1 car pit stop; ideally, each transaction should take place simultaneously and without hitch to ensure success.

In 2014, a task force comprising representatives of Shell, Maersk, MSC, CMA CGM, and the European ports of Algeciras, Gothenburg and Rotterdam, as well as Houston, Busan, Singapore and Ningbo Zhoushan, embarked on a project to identify ways to improve port call efficiency. That project yielded Pronto, a new tool which assigns a port call timeline to each vessel on which all the operations to be undertaken at the port are logged. The tool is still in development but has been used successfully to reduce waiting times and lower CO2 emissions at the participating locations. Rotterdam is now selling the service to other ports, and it is hoped that as more ports join, the greater the efficiencies along a vessel’s route.

Barrier to progress

According to Nick Chubb, founder of Antares Insight and head of growth at Intelligent Cargo Systems, the biggest barrier to progress is that with every vessel call at a port, there may be as many as 20 different parties involved, with varying and sometimes conflicting interests. “We need to improve the level of collaboration between different parties in a port call. The way different parties work makes it difficult to effect any improvements. A lot of them are working on a whiteboard in their own offices – bunkering schedules, pilot operations, and so on.

“There are a few interesting projects – Rotterdam being one – to move that information onto digital platforms so it can be shared between all parties. Just by giving everyone access to the same set of information, [Rotterdam] has managed to cut waiting times by 20%.”

Different ports have different priorities, as well. In the same way that a shipowner is hesitant to invest in new efficiencies where only the charterer will benefit, port organisations have traditionally not been forthcoming in implementing changes which will benefit their competitors. Yet a more holistic attitude along shipping routes could bring benefits for all of them, as well as for the lines that call there, Mr Chubb indicates. “Every port around the world has a different definition of their own productivity, making it very difficult to measure objectively. Getting the different parties to agree on the different standards and definitions, data types – this is creating a massive leap forward,” he says.

This calls for standardisation of measures across ports. “Things like net and gross berth moves per hour,” Mr Chubb suggests. Or, “being able to communicate between the berth and tugs and pilots in a standardised way … allows everyone to plan the operation much better, and up until recently those standards haven’t existed. It goes beyond just productivity.”

Standards move

Efforts have been made to introduce such measures. The E43m STM Validation project, partially-funded by the EU, concluded in 2018. Called the Port Collaborative Decision Making (Port CDM), one of the project’s aims was to grease the wheels of trade by defining a common language for ports to share information. Thirteen ports participated in the project. “Everyone has their own idea of what a good port call looks like and how to measure, improve it,” says Mr Chubb. “[The project] tried to get every major seaport in Europe to contribute a level of benchmarking data. Once they got over the initial inertia it became quite successful.”

It has become a cliché to say that digitalisation can and will make everything more efficient, but port calls have perhaps one of the firmest and most tangible cases for implementation of better time management. The trouble is that, as Mr Chubb indicates, the customer base is not in unanimous agreement about what system to use. “The more we scratch the surface, the more we find work to do; we’re at the stage of defining the terms of improvements to be made, rather than making improvements.”

Of course, while it may be difficult to get ports in different countries to collaborate with each other in this respect, the common denominator is the vessels which call there. But if rival ports are not willing to collaborate, one way to encourage them to do so is to approach the problem from elsewhere.

From the other side

Originally, Intelligent Cargo Systems’ Cargomate was designed purely for the benefit of the seafarers on the vessel and shoreside vessel operators, digitising data which would have otherwise been recorded by hand. “This is information which has been collected for the last 50 years by every ship visiting a terminal, but it has been written down,” explains Mr Chubb. “We’re not changing the extent of data collected, but rather how – the first step was to digitalise these paper logbooks.

“We would then run them through our algorithm to predict the earliest time the ship can depart. Someone at the fleet management department can then see this data without making calls to the port, and then use it to make the necessary bookings.”

Shifting from paper to digital has afforded the ability to make calculations and compare port calls in a way not seen previously. With the data harvested, owned and accessed by the carrier, it is painting a frank picture of port performance, whether the port wishes to co-operate with the process or not. “We’ve probably started to ruffle some feathers, given that we’ve managed to collect comprehensive data on port performance,” says Mr Chubb. However, he believes that more ports will seek to leverage this information to improve their operations in the future. “My belief is that this is where the industry will go, and it will increase transparency for everyone,” he adds.

Wider view

If ports do take a holistic view, and collaborate with carriers and one another, the potential gains are extraordinary. Sharing information would allow dual-cycling – placing a container and removing another with every crane movement – or loading groups of containers in one go. “You don’t want to lift four boxes if one isn’t for your terminal. But this kind of manoeuvring requires co-operation across a number of terminals. Better data sharing makes things like that possible. Even if it is only a 10% time saving, this is a massive difference in efficiency.”

The savings in terms of emissions are also nothing to be sniffed at. If ports embrace call optimisation, vessels will be serviced much more quickly, and spend more of their time underway, on-hire, rather than sitting idle. “There is, of course, a lot of concern that if you share this data it opens up the terminal to competition,” says Mr Chubb. “But down the line I see the vast majority, if not every port and terminal, connected to and synchronising with these types of platforms. Combining these things together would allow everyone in the wider ecosystem to reap huge benefits.”



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