Feb 2017

Oiling the Wheels with IT

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Modern container terminals would simply not be viable without terminal operating systems (TOS). For facilities today, a high-performing TOS can often be the essential ingredient for good productivity, whether that be at the quayside, in the yard or at the gate.

Many terminals, especially the larger-scale ones, like to develop their own tailor-made TOS. A spokesperson for one large global operator told CM that developing an in-house OS can be a sensible option if the terminal operator has the scale to justify it.

Operators may want to control their own affairs rather than putting mission-critical systems in the hands of an external vendor, she added. In-house systems also allow the operator to customise or introduce new features as it deems fit, while an external vendor may not devote resources to developing a new feature unless there is industry-wide demand for it.

On the other hand, most terminals do not have the luxury of developing their own in-house TOS. However, luckily for them, the market includes some vendors with good track records.

In recent years, Navis has grown into one of the largest global TOS developers. While initially such companies focused mainly on information transfers within the container terminal itself, there is now a trend towards greater collaboration.

Raj Gupta, chief technical officer at Navis, told CM that the company is looking to address the broader industry picture, providing services to carriers, terminal operators and shippers. Last year its parent company Cargotec acquired Interschalt Maritime Systems of Germany, with an eye to collaboration on stowage and carrier solutions.

“We want to make sure that we bring together the carriers and the terminal operators and other enterprises in the supply chain, to have data flow seamlessly between them,” said Gupta. This also requires the necessary security and authentication safeguards that will allow all parties to share that data.

The key benefit of data being shared is enhanced productivity. If carriers can send their stowage plans to terminal operators ahead of time, then when last-minute changes are made it is easier for the operators to reset loading and unloading plans. Similarly, terminal operators informing carriers about changes in schedules or berthing capacity allows them to make better-informed decisions about what speed to sail at to save fuel costs.

Navis’s cloud-based collaboration platform XVELA is conducting an ongoing pilot project in which multiple global shipping lines and terminal operators are taking part. “We can do this because we are independent of any terminal operator or carrier,” Gupta pointed out.

According to Gupta, the plan is to expand the pilot into meaningful contracts this year. “In the cloud, you have the capability of having centralised data from which you can drive meaningful trends and provide meaningful analytics, not just predictive analytics but potentially prescriptive analytics,” he added.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

Connecting the dots with the wider supply chain beyond the terminal is also something that West Coast-based software developer Tideworks Technology is doing. The company’s president, Michael Schwank, told CM that hinterland optimisation is becoming increasingly important. Tideworks has begun working with Advent Intermodal Solutions on this issue.

In one particular automatic in-gate project at three West Coast terminals, beneficial cargo owners (BCOs) or truckers or dispatchers can go online and pre-advise on the container and a specific task they want to accomplish, with or without an appointment.

“When the truck arrives and once you’ve read all the key data off the truck and the container, you’re told where to go out in the yard and where to put something in a few seconds,” stated Schwank. “Everyone’s hyped up about Uber, but within a port complex there has to be a certain amount of commonality amongst these approaches because nobody’s an island any more.”

In addition, Tideworks uses its Spinnaker planning management system for container vessels, the terminal itself, in and out and on-dock rail planning. Schwank explained: “We’re working with terminal operators on how to de-densify what happens in a terminal when you discharge 5,000 containers over a couple of days. It’s not just about the crane productivity, it’s also about the productivity of creating the space and getting stuff off the terminal as rapidly as possible.”

The firm enjoyed a successful 2016, with TOS go-lives in Tuxpan in Mexico, in Port Everglades in Florida with Crowley, in several CSX rail facilities and in Luka Koper in Slovenia, amongst others. It also helped facilities to navigate the tricky situation in the run-up to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) regulations on verified gross mass (VGM) coming into force.

In Schwank’s opinion, while the current industry situation is very challenging for terminals, it plays into the hands of TOS developers. He explained: “Most operators are now realising that if you are going to be in a very tight margin-competitive market where shipping lines are asking for cost control to the nth degree, you can no longer really consider IT as something that’s just unique to your facility.”

Instead, he envisages terminals coming to vendors with the confidence that they can deliver on a “mission”, which requires a cost-effective solution. “The terminal operators are now less interested in being little castles of their own IT with their own IT directors,” he added.

As far as the year ahead goes, Tideworks is looking to launch a database warehouse called InsightTM in early 2017. This comprises extract, transform, load (ETL) scripts that create a normalised database of all of a company’s applications, over which a business intelligence tool such as Tableau can be layered.

The data warehouse solution has been connected to Tableau although according to Schwank it is business intelligence (BI) tool-agnostic. He stated: "It can use any BI tool. BI tools also allow you to bring in other informatio from financial systems or other applications so you can do comparisons. I think this is a key aspect for visibility.” In general terms, this would enable a terminal to make calculations depending on the data used. An example could be cost per move. Schwank pointed out: “You don’t need a pure data analysis to do this kind of stuff. The terminals or the customers will be able to create visibility into that.”

FOCUS ON PRODUCTIVITY

For Eddie King, Navis’s vice president of software development, 2015 was a year of stability, in which the seeds were sown for a renewed focus on productivity. Changes in hardware at a terminal can affect what the software is doing, creating a feedback loop, which affects operations. “Complexity leads to instability not just in the TOS but in the whole ecosystem, including operations and personnel learning new things,” stated King.

Managing this ecosystem successfully goes a long way towards improving a port’s productivity. “You’ve got the TOS in the centre of the ecosystem but we are integrating with many different third party systems – control systems, gate systems, customs systems,” said King.

“Our customers have actually become systems integrators. They don’t want to be systems integrators,” he pointed out. Rather they would prefer to focus on the efficiency of their operations.

In King’s view, it is essential to “take the pain and burden” of systems integration away from Navis’s customers. One route to doing this is to make the integration with all third party systems seamless. “We want to be the provider which is at the centre of making things turnkey,” he added.

In an effort to provide tools for troubleshooting, Navis has reorganised its teams into four separate areas, which include operations and systems management. Currently, the Oakland-based firm is working on simplifying its install and upgrade processes as well as tools to troubleshoot issues in the TOS or key interfaces between its system and associated third party systems.

Another team is working on platform consolidation, focusing partly on user experience (UX) and usability. “We’re building products like terminal monitoring, which allows you to manage by exception,” said King. “The feedback is built into the system, looking into the system holistically, not just the software.”

King has worked closely with terminals in Rotterdam (on the Maasvlakte II development) and in Long Beach to address their issues, specifically end-to-end complexity. “In some cases, it’s special tasks like loading tanks – how you do those and not interrupt the flow,” he stated. “Ultimately the key is to keep the quay cranes busy. That’s where the productivity happens.”