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Ports & Container Shipping

Smart ports as digital exchanges and the next step in the maritime supply chain

Posted by on 31 October 2019
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Ahead of Smart Ports Summit Barcelona got the opportunity to speak with Piet Opstaele, Innovation Lead at Port of Antwerp.

We asked him how important smart ports will be in the development of the maritime supply chain, transparency, cyber threats at ports, and enabling cooperation with their clients.

Take a look at the Q&A below.


Iain Gomersall: How important are smart ports to the development of the maritime supply chain?

Piet Opstaele: We could discuss the definition of a smart port, but I think they are crucial. At least in Antwerp we believe this strongly. The port of the future has to be digital founded, sustainable in its activities, and innovative in attracting new businesses.

Over the course of the last 20 years, each step in the supply chain has optimised itself.

As shipping liners got bigger, the terminals would get bigger and part of the process was automated to improve efficiency. There was maximum optimisation of every individual step in the supply chain.

However, the overall supply chain process has not been optimised. There are still a lot of improvements which can be made to capacity and efficiency, and we will be using technology to close that gap. Data will be an important part of this. So, transparency, efficiency, digital exchanges, and sharing of data will be crucial elements in the equation.

If you look to the BCOs, the cargo owners, and the whole maritime block, there can be a bit of a blackhole with regards to information or communication. There have been several cases where a party in the supply chain does not know when a container will arrive, where the container is, or whether it is delayed. They would have to call themselves to get updates through the different stages.

From a customer’s point of view, there are things which we need to improve to be able to provide accurate, up-to-date information and data.

Q: Will the broader maritime sector have a say in how smart ports develop?

Piet Opstaele: As a port authority, I think we are probably one of the main drivers in how the port develops. Being a landlord is one thing, but we are also an operator and community builder in that specific port or platform.

We need to initiate, coordinate, stimulate and facilitate initiatives to become a smarter port. Not only in a specific port itself, but to connect to other ports around the world.

Q: Companies active in the ports industry are responsible for both physical goods and sensitive customer data. As ports continue their path to digitalisation, what can port authority ecosystems do to protect against cyber-attacks and digital threats?

Piet Opstaele: We have seen some very big cases in the last few years in the maritime industry. I believe there is still a lot of work to be done - within ports and companies connected to the maritime supply chain.

I think most major players are taking steps to improve their cyber defenses, but not at the same level. In Antwerp we have a large network of approximately 900 entities – many of these are SMEs where cyber security is limited or not present yet - and we are aware that and it does need to be worked on.

At the In Antwerp Port Authority, we have a team working on cyber security across all operations. I don’t think that we can make it 100% safe, but we are fairly confident that we have sufficient resilience.

There is a joint work group on cyber security which most of the ports around the world have joined. If we look at Singapore, and Los Angeles, they are pretty state-of-the-art and are very well developed.

Over time we have seen ports like Los Angeles playing a moderation role, providing cyber security advice and services to the rest of the companies within the port. We are starting to do this at the Port of Antwerp.

These leaders must step-up sooner rather than later. They will help protect the wider group to make the overall platform resilient against cyber-attacks as threats will not disappear.

It is equally important to have back-up solutions or fallbacks. You can build a layered model where somebody can enter on this level, but they cannot move much further from there. And of course, the protective systems are getting smarter, but so are the hackers. It will be an ongoing battle.

Q: Cooperation and data sharing between ports could streamline processes and improve operations - but some port authorities can be protective over their own data. Do you agree that cooperation is important to the evolution/growth of the smart port? If so, how do we overcome this hurdle?

Piet Opstaele: A week or two ago there was a chainPORT general assembly in Montreal. ChainPORT is a cross-national partnership between the world’s leading ports. The ports of Hamburg, Los Angeles, Antwerp, Barcelona, Busan, Felixstowe, Indonesia, Montreal, Rotterdam, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Singapore are all part of the network.

In one of the discussion groups we had, we were considering how to connect all the major ports - specifically to share data. While we're not at the first stage, it's not that simple to connect the ports together.

We believe that using one system will not work. Instead, connecting the systems with an intermediary layer will be the best option for allow for data sharing. This will more than likely be an API enabled platform, as that would be the easiest way around issues of data governance, security, consistency and quality.

I spent 20 years in navigation and data, and I believe that it is very hard to make money with data, even with intelligent data. In the maritime business, it is perhaps even more difficult to make money with data.

Many still have a perception that their data is worth a lot of money, and their competitors’ data is worth nothing. They believe that people will have to pay them to share their data.

We have to look at it from the perspective that if everyone shares their data, the overall system and performance becomes better, and everyone in the industry benefits. We are still at the stage of building confidence that when we openly share data, it might not contribute directly to revenue, but it will have a positive effect to the overall efficiency.

Someone looking from the outside could think that it is unbelievable that this kind of information flow has not been implemented already. Slowly but steady you see that more and more companies see the benefits of a transparent data platform.

Several ports had invested large sums of money to set up data platforms for their own port.

Some tried to make money was by reselling the platform as an out-of-the-box solution to other ports.

Others felt that their data is very valuable, perhaps more valuable than data from other ports or players, and that sharing it could have security implications.

These three things have been the main factors holding back the sharing of data.

But I think that understanding will go a long way. Understanding that you can have a very thin API enabled platform, which sits above a governance structure, and would not compromise investment or security. It's light, secure, allows sharing, access and does not copying data.

The whole idea is not only about enabling point-to-point – that has already existed for many years – it’s about being on a singular platform that allows you to connect to multiple points. It would not be a major investment to achieve this. If ports don’t do it themselves, someone else will.

The global cargo and shipping platforms, the Amazons and Ali Babas, they are building global door-to-door cargo systems It’s all about how efficiently they can be connected to other networks.

Networks are extremely crucial, and ports should be careful not to become dump pipes as has happened in the telecoms industry. The data is there, the platforms exist, the potential is present, we need to grab this opportunity this… and fast.

Q: Port authorities and terminal operators – what complexities does their relationship with one another bring to the smart ports equation?

Piet Opstaele: One of the major things will be the use of land, the volumes processed at the terminals, and the overall efficiency of smart port operations. I believe that we can make major steps in the right direction though.

In the past, there had been a substantial focus on automating terminals fully. This is difficult and costly as terminals also act as a buffer between the sea and the land operations. When a ship or train has a delay, the terminal acts as a buffer.

If we view a port as a system that consists of smaller pockets of capacity (ships, tug boats, berth places, terminal yards, etc), and we use data analytics (potentially, artificial intelligence) in combination with some automation of operations and mechanics, I believe it is possible to see a significant amount optimisation and increase the volume processed at a port.

You see few such projects running in Asia and Australia, and this ‘golden’ combination can be the way forward.

Director of Strategy & Innovation at Port of Amsterdam, Eduard De Visser, answered the same questions for us! Take a look at his answers here.

Learn more about the ports of the future at Smart Ports Summit Barcelona! Take a look at the event agenda here.


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