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by Kadri Haufe, Head of Smart Port Advisory

A practical guide to developing a future-proof port

Growing demand coupled with a highly competitive landscape require ports to keep adapting in order to stay relevant and efficient. Developing future-proof or smart ports requires taking into consideration the latest technological advancements, as well as environmental and economic factors. In this article, I will provide you with a step-by-step guide on developing future-proof ports that can thrive in a perpetually changing and increasingly competitive environment. 

Assess your current state of affairs

The first step in the process of digitalizing your port is assessing your current situation. This includes thoroughly understanding your existing processes, identifying inefficiencies, and determining what specifically needs to be improved. A crucial component of this is looking at the data you have available, starting with understanding who your customers are, what is your capacity, seasonality, and level of utilization, and where do you generate the most amount of revenue.  

Imagine the future

The maritime business is tough, and envisioning the future demands effort. The timelines tend to be long, which means we have to look at least 10-15 years into the future while being mindful of today’s limitations. Our job is to make sense of the shifts in the movement of goods and people, anticipate changes in the evolving regulatory landscape, explore forthcoming technologies, and understand the rising expectations towards your port.

Develop a digitalization strategy

Once you have identified the areas that require improvement or offer the greatest potential for enhancing your business, it is essential to craft a robust digitalization strategy.  

Your digitalization strategy should establish a strong connection to the business value you aim to achieve, while encompassing a comprehensive assessment of available technologies, a well structured plan for implementation, and a timeline outlining the journey towards accomplishing your goals. 

Many ports tend to adopt a fairly conservative approach. To make sure you are constructing a future-proof port while harnessing the true potential of digitalization, it is important to strike a balance between incremental improvements and visionary thinking. Consider incorporating one or two groundbreaking projects in your portfolio to create substantial impact. To manage risks effectively, deploying risk-mitigating approaches such as working with sprints and building MVPs. These methods enable you to explore entirely new digitalization opportunities while maintaining control over costs and risks. 

Focus on data management

In order to achieve comprehensive digitalization of your port, you need to focus on data management. This involves collecting and analyzing data from various sources such as sensors, as well as gate and cargo management systems. By implementing proper data management practices, you gain the ability to identify trends, optimize operations, and enhance overall efficiency. Currently, many ports face the challenge of coping with an escalating volume of data (e.g. from digital cargo documentation), but they do not yet have the means to utilize this information. This can be turned around by embracing rapid ideation, data analysis, prototyping, and service design processes. 

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Embrace IoT technologies

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a key technology for digitalizing ports. IoT sensors can be used to monitor cargo, track vehicles and movement, as well as manage traffic flow. By embracing IoT technologies, you gain real-time visibility into your operations and are able to make informed decisions. If the term ‘digital twin’ piques curiosity, we have a suggestion. Begin by identifying a business problem you want to solve. For example, if you’re spending a lot of money on the maintenance of your assets and infrastructure, consider transforming them into digital twins to gain better control over spend. Or if you’re too dependent on seasonal, highly skilled staff, digitalize your port traffic management, bring all data into the system, and let the algorithms do the bulk of the work. 

Automate processes

Automation is another key component of digitalizing ports. Automated gate, cargo and traffic management systems can help reduce manual processes while increasing efficiency. By automating these processes, you can also improve safety and security, make better use of precious terminal area, and see higher levels of satisfaction within your staff. 

Implement smart technologies

Smart technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, and machine learning can help with digitalizing your port. Blockchain can be used to securely manage contracts and transactions, while AI and machine learning is highly valuable for predicting and optimizing operations. 

Train your staff

Onboarding your staff onto new technologies and processes is absolutely essential for success. Digital literacy and confidence takes time, so it’s important to begin early. Involve people into the process and let them feel wins from new implementations as early as possible. With new technologies related to AI and automation,  it’s likely that you’ll need to upskill folks in your organization. New skills in data science, AI programming, and product management will be required, and by investing into your staff you can maximize your success with the new digitalization efforts.  

To summarize, digitalizing ports requires a holistic approach touching every aspect of your organization. By following these steps, you’ll be able to improve your port’s efficiency, safety, and security, while staying ahead of competition in a rapidly changing industry. 

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