Just how widespread is digitisation within the marine port environment, especially for the ‘first and last mile’ of a ship’s voyage involving service providers including towage operators.

Advanced technologies are increasingly standard features with new tugs nowadays but speaking to MJ, David Yeo, group CEO and founder board member of maritime software solutions provider Innovez One looks at the whole supply chain including shipping and port operations concluding: ‘While many aspects of the supply chain have seen real change, the first and last mile within the marine port environment has been largely left behind. This is despite it being a place where the most challenging parts of the voyage takes place.’

Mr Yeo considers that the drive for sustainability with ‘unprecedented scrutiny’ within the supply chain: ‘has acted as a catalyst for innovation, and in conjunction with the natural onset of digitalisation has led to a swathe of new clean technologies and software designed to optimise every aspect of a vessel and its journey.’ He mentions the perceived reality of automated ‘smart ports’ embracing digitisation with for example big data, AI, blockchain and the Internet of Things technologies commenting: ‘But dig deeper, and we soon see that this digitalisation is only reserved for the few major, tier one ports, and even then, is largely focussed on the land-based operations of a port, overlooking the vital processes and activities that happen at sea in terms of towage, pilotage and workboat operations.’

Mr Yeo states that of the 4,900 commercial ports worldwide 80% are not yet using digital technology for even most basic processes but: ‘continuing to rely on manual, legacy solutions such as whiteboards or spreadsheets to manage critical marine services such as towage, pilotage, and launch boats.’ This leads to a range of inefficiencies including optimised resource planning: ‘and it leaves many ports commercially vulnerable and less able to compete in an increasingly digital world.’

Expanding on potential disadvantages faced by ports not using digital technology for basic processes Mr Yeo says: ‘This dynamic reflects the often-messy reality of port operations where there is a blend of high-tech digital and paper-based, manual processes sitting side-by-side. It also causes interoperability issues, where different systems are not talking effectively in real-time to each other, which impedes effective execution.’

Mr Yeo describes the first and last mile of a voyage as a ‘weak link in the global logistics chain’ and considers it ‘of critical concern’ highlighting in particular arranging and deploying pilots along with coordinating sufficient tugs with suitable power for particular environmental situations. Addressing advantages for the towage sector he states: ‘It also highlights the significant missed opportunities, particularly for towage operators, to make substantial savings of their annual fuel costs by reducing the mileage of tugs while saving yearly maintenance costs and personnel cost savings of their towage vessels.’

Highlighting potential efficiency, sustainability, profitability and competitiveness advantages of affordable and readily available technology Mr Yeo states: ‘We’ve demonstrated that this is possible, using our marineM solutions around the world. In Tanjung Priok in Indonesia for example, marineM has saved USD155k in annual fuel costs, by reducing mileage by 20%. It has saved USD90k in annual maintenance costs, and USD150k by reducing accidents. The digitalisation of ports should not be for the few, but for the many, and we must strive to create a fair and level playing field within the global ports’ marketplace.’

In Europe, the complexity of coordinating towage services at scale is evident in Rotterdam, (See MJ June 2019) a prime example of Mr Yeo’s ‘first tier’ ports where currently around 30 shiphandling tugs operate. The Harbour Master Management Information System (HaMIS) and the Port Community System (Portbase) are just two of the digital ‘tools’ aimed at smoothing the flow of activity in this busy and complex port where transhipment facilities including via inland waterways are interwoven with the traditional maritime activities common at such ports.

Smaller ports may not have the resources Rotterdam enjoys but the importance of digitisation that is now affordable and well established in the wider maritime world is summed up by Mr Yeo who concludes: ‘Not just to the benefit of the smaller ports, which play a crucial role in the global supply chain, but for the future sustainability of the entire shipping and maritime industry.’

By Peter Barker