The COVID-19 pandemic is focusing minds on the digital world. Felicity Landon reports.
In the grip of COVID-19, there’s plenty of talk about a ‘new normal’. For the maritime sector, that new normal will inevitably be based on a renewed push towards digitalisation. There are plenty of reasons for that – not least the need to reduce costs and bottlenecks and to increase effi ciency. But in practical terms, the pandemic is also reinforcing the case for going paperless because COVID-19 has been shown to stay on paper for up to four days.
In June, a ‘Call to Action’ communiqué entitled Accelerating Digitalisation of Maritime Trade and Logistics was launched by a group of organisations, including the International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH), BIMCO, the International Cargo Handling Coordination Association (ICHCA), the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the International Harbour Masters’ Association (IHMA), the International Maritime Pilots Association (IMPA), the International Port Community Systems Association (IPCSA), the International Ship Suppliers’ Association (ISSA), the Federation of National Associations of Ship Brokers and Agents (FONASBA) and the PROTECT Group.
With the focus on exiting from lockdowns, said the communiqué, “There is an urgent need for inter-governmental organisations, governments and industry stakeholders concerned with maritime trade and logistics to come together and accelerate the pace of digitalisation so that port communities across the world can at least offer a basic package of electronic commerce and data exchange, in compliance with all relevant contractual and regulatory obligations.”
Tor Svanes, managing director of e-navigation specialist NAVTOR, says: “All the maritime news reports say that digitalisation in in maritime has been speeded up due to COVID-19. So, if that is what we can expect, it is good to see.”
Among the changes in attitude, one is highlighted by Oliver Schwarz, business development director at ChartWorld: “An important development is that our customers now understand that sending out paper products to vessels is a thing of the past. We don’t need to send paper books; we can learn to appreciate benefits of e-books. Covid-19 pushed this forward and customers had to respond,” he says.
The Port of Rotterdam Authority’s PortXchange, a port call optimisation platform, has responded to the COVID-19 crisis in a joint initiative with Inchcape World of Ports. Launched in 2019, PortXchange is designed to improve the efficiency of port calls and help ships to reduce their emissions, both in port and between ports – the application can be used by shipping companies, agents, terminals and other service providers to ‘optimally plan, execute and monitor all activities during a port call’, including pilotage, terminal use and bunker services.
PortXchange and Inchcape announced that during the COVID-19 crisis, initially up to August 2020, agencies and terminals would get free-of-charge access to part of the PortXchange software to schedule port calls and share them directly with their port community, now based on master data supplied by Inchcape to cover almost 4,500 ports around the world.
The crisis has created challenging times for the industry involved in scheduling port calls remotely, the partners pointed out: “Getting the right information and communicating updates to many different stakeholders and colleagues may become more challenging when not at the office.”
Dita Bruijn, director of operations at PortXchange, says: “Port call optimisation covers the whole scope from the previous port to the next new port, including arriving, cargo operations and leaving again. Typically, a lot of ships approach a port at too high a speed, then have to anchor and wait until the terminal is ready to receive them.”
When working on the PortXchange programme, Rotterdam had noted that more than 50 per cent of ships approaching port had to wait. “Then you also have all the unnecessary emissions – higher because they approached too fast and then higher while they are waiting, generating emissions that are damaging for the local environment. Our platform was designed to improve communication between port and shipping line so the vessel can slow down and still arrive at the optimum speed and time.”
PortXchange connects all the information automatically on a digital platform – sending out notification from the terminal so that the shipping line knows if the vessel needs to reduce speed, says Ms Bruijn. “It has multiple layers: the physical information and a digital map of the anchorage area, pilot area and infrastructure; on top of that the AIS information so we can see where the ships are all the time; we place the planning information on top of that and the actual information from all the parties involved in the port call – port authority, shipping line, terminal, agent, service providers. We combine all the information together and the system flags up differences in information – for example, if the terminal is expecting the vessel to arrive at 2am and the port authority is expecting 5am.”
A warning is generated where there is a mismatch, so that this can be resolved. “It sounds super straightforward and you would expect all that to be already there but what you usually see is a very manual process in which a lot of people have to call each other and send emails back and forth to check and figure out the status of the port call.”
A stumbling block to a digital solution like this is standards: “You can only digitalise a process if you standardise,” says Ms Bruijn. “You need to have the same events you are talking about – another thing you would think is straightforward. But if you talk about the arrival of a vessel, is everyone talking about the same thing? No, the terminal is talking about the berth, the agent something else. We are working with the IMO group on the push for standards.”
An interesting spin-off from PortXchange is transparency, she also notes. “Before PortXchange, some parties were benefiting from information such as berth availability before others. But as a terminal or agent, you are part of an ecosystem and managing a joint process. When you go to the port, it is in the interests of all parties to look at the bigger picture and work on something that is best for all stakeholders. Everyone wants to optimise their own terminal and productivity. The port wants to optimise throughput. And the shipping line has its own KPIs.
“If you bring those KPIs together and work together to improve the process, you can achieve so much more. What use is it if the terminal focuses on productivity and then, when the cargo operations are done, you have to wait for another two hours?”
It’s all about working together, she says. Imagine, for example, that every party involved in a port call had built in a buffer of 15 or 30 minutes without telling anyone else. “You can’t just focus on your own part of the process.”
The need for harmonisation
The need for harmonised data standards was heavily emphasised by the industry’s ‘Call to Action’; those signing also want to see enforcement of the already mandatory requirements defi ned in the IMO’s FAL Convention.
The COVID-19 crisis has ‘painfully demonstrated’ the differences between ports worldwide. “While some port communities seized the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution and developed into full-fledged ‘smart’ ports, many others have barely grasped the essentials of digitalisation and continue to struggle with larger reliance on personal interaction and paper-based transactions as the norms for shipboard, ship-port interface and port-hinterland based exchanges.”
As an illustration, says the Call to Action, only 49 of the 174 member states of the IMO have functioning Port Community Systems, ‘systems which are considered the cornerstone of any port in the current digitalised business landscape’.
Richard Brough, head of ICHCA, says that while Port Community Systems and digital solutions are commonplace for large ports and global port operators, smaller ports struggle to implement them. “That is for several reasons; they are not as awake to the opportunities as larger operations are, the industry is generally risk-averse and slow to change, and the industry has been slow to catch up with others.
“It is easy when you talk about container terminals – the box comes from a slot on the ship to a slot on land and then to the conveyance to its destination. It is relatively simple to digitalise containerised and unitised processes. Breakbulk and bulks are harder – although this is happening.”
He says there are several reasons why paper transactions remain very much in use at many ports. “Vested interest is one factor. ‘This is the way we have always done it’ is another factor. Protecting jobs is another. But digitalisation makes a port more efficient and more attractive.”
He describes the global port operators as disruptors in this respect – when they take on a new concession, they are obviously looking to introduce new, more efficient ways of working than those in place.
There can be local opposition but the drive towards Port Community Systems, Single Windows and other digital solutions must move forward, he says. “Otherwise we risk ending up with a two-tier world – one automated and efficient, the other left behind. And it is likely to be the developing economies that don’t catch up.”