Smart Technologies: Aiding Digital Ports in Europe

For the past few centuries, global trade has long been dominated by Europeans from the Roman and Byzantine Empires up to the Age of Exploration led by Portugal, Spain, England, and France. Fast forward to the steamships and ocean-liners that crisscrossed the known world up to the gargantuan oil tankers and container ships that delivered foodstuff and consumer electronics, the need to digitize logistic management and port operation has reached the critical point that even the established ports of Liverpool, Rotterdam and Hamburg have to catch up with the changing times.

Port administrators and operators have always been tackling supply chain and logistics inefficiency for quite a long time. Not only it has cost a lot of time and money on ports everywhere but also on the end markets as well and ultimately the general consumers. In order to reduce inefficiency and wastage, there is a growing shift towards the adoption of automation and smart technologies to streamline all aspects of port operations from loading/unloading down to the transportation and distribution of goods. Not only that, smart technology is expected to change cargo handling, intermodal traffic, customs collection, maritime safety and security, and even environmental protection of the seas.

The European Union has collaborated with CEOs of various European port authorities and transportation ministers of member states in formulating guidelines for the development of the so-called trans-European transport network (TEN-T) in order to boost growth and competitiveness in Europe’s Single Market. With that development, initiatives have been implemented in order to simplify and streamline port operational procedures with digital informational flows and reduce administrative burden.

In the future, digital ports in Europe would mean a massive overhaul of existing infrastructure and technology to meet growing supply chain demands, logistical challenges, and operational pressures.

We are now approaching Industry 4.0 where all forms of transactions are now transitioning into blockchain and smart technologies. Despite the growth in technological adoption, there are three key challenges that European ports are facing as they aim to transform traditional operations into the digital ports of the future.

1. There is a need to emphasize the significance of upgrading existing port infrastructure and technology as most ports are still tied up to age-old inefficient ways of doing things. Port authorities have examined the impact of globalization and changing market demands with regard to the current state of port operations. It is also essential to monitor the health and status of critical port and terminal infrastructure. Lastly, existing port facilities have to expand in order to keep up with the continuing growth of vessel sizes and cargo volumes.

2. Another key issue to take into consideration is a full and comprehensive evaluation of the supply chain and logistics management limitations and shortcomings. There is always something to improve no matter how profitable or efficient the operation is. With that in mind, port congestion has to be minimized by accommodating cargo trucks and trains with the expansion of road networks. Just like traffic management in city streets, vehicle movement has to be coordinated in order to optimize traffic flow from the port to the cargo destinations. More equally important is speeding up the loading and unloading process in the transfer of goods from the vessels to the port and vice versa.

3. Technology alone is not enough, there should be a corresponding effort to improve best port management practices in order to increase productivity and efficiency. Enhancing productivity, it means removing the shortcomings of manual processes and human value judgment. Cargo operations can further be optimized by embracing automation and Internet of Things technologies through connected platforms, cloud-based services, smartphone apps, augmented reality, autonomous transportation, big data, and blockchain technologies.

By addressing these key pain points that European ports are facing, smart port technologies would eventually reduce energy consumption and environmental impact from all aspects of port operations thereby generating new services and revenue streams.

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