In Depth: Digital Optimisation – How Technology Makes Ports More Efficient

Taking a look at the world around us, it is clear that technology is making boundless industrial and societal processes more efficient. From online booking tools to lock scheduling systems, today’s ports have a wide range of these technological tools at their fingertips – all with the goal to improve safety, accessibility and efficiency.

For the maritime world in particular, key examples of technology are found in the fields of energy production and management, sensor technology and drones. And while nanotechnology and artificial intelligence are expected to make their mark on tomorrow’s world, advances in ICT are forging change in today’s market.


The recently launched TEUbooker demonstrates that change. This online booking portal for container transport within the Port of Rotterdam uses algorithms to make a direct match between supply and demand in the market. The word algorithm crops up quite a lot when discussing advances in ICT. Algorithms are sets of calculations in problem-solving processes and they are present throughout today’s maritime world: fuel and propulsion optimisation, fleet management, shipping route optimisation and vessel design are just a few examples.

However, the critical point with these advances is that technology has to be combined with human ideas. For TEUbooker founder Frans Swarttouw, the idea of using algorithmic technology to match the supply and demand of container movements came from his experience in the container logistics sector: “For the last six years I have worked with terminals, operators, forwarders, port authorities as well as hinterland ports, of course.”

He noticed quite a lot of unused capacity on the barges and trains that move between terminals within the Port of Rotterdam and to and from the hinterland. “TEUbooker is about offering that capacity to the market. Furthermore, it is an open platform: every operator that wants to participate is more than welcome. To book a container is free – we invoice the operators per TEU booked.”

One particular advantage of such a system is its potential to reduce the number of containers being moved on the roads and to increase the amount transported by train and inland shipping. “This is the so-called modal shift which has been a focus of ports for many years and is a complex process. The easier you make it to book a container on a train or inland shipping vessel, the faster you will achieve this modal shift”, explains Swarttouw.

“We need to get more traffic off the major highways in the Netherlands. Everybody is tired of wasting their time in traffic jams. Many forwarders have consulted TEUbooker in the past months and I am amazed that some are still 100 per cent truck-oriented.”

To the hinterland

Swarttouw goes on to highlight the importance of the modal shift: “It can ultimately increase an individual port’s competitive position and it is also important environmentally. In this way, TEUbooker is a tool to contribute to less freight being carried over the roads, and therefore less pressure on the environment. Our initial figures demonstrate this – just 2 per cent of containers were booked on trucks and 86 per cent onto inland vessels.”

Even though TEUbooker was launched in Rotterdam, the platform has ambitions for growth: “Many operators see the benefit of tapping into this online distribution channel. The Internet is the perfect outlet to reach smaller shippers and forwarders”, states Swarttouw. “And because there is so much traffic between ports, the next step, therefore, is to introduce TEUbooker for hinterland connections. From Rotterdam to Munich or to Duisburg, for example. The dream is to roll out this concept to other ports in Northwest Europe.”

Algorithms again

Algorithms are making ports more efficient

From the point of view of a port, the importance of optimising logistics procedures is clear-cut, as Susanne Visscher, Project Leader Digital Port, at the Port of Amsterdam, explains: “Efficient logistics is a precondition to maintaining economic significance,” she says. “The Port of Amsterdam is convinced that access to the port can always be smarter, faster and cleaner. Therefore it’s vital to ensure optimal accessibility through the front door – deep sea and shortsea through the lock at IJmuiden – as well as the back door with rail, road and inland waterways to the hinterland.”

Contributing to the Port of Amsterdam’s aims to improve efficiency is technology. Earlier this year, as part of a project run by Dutch research organisation TNO, the port commenced a ‘data sharing’ project with the aim to make oil barge transport safer and more efficient. The participating organisations – including terminals, surveyors, carriers and operators – shared information on cargo, position and route. Illustrating another example of their use in the maritime industry, an algorithm-based program then predicts terminal and berth arrival times. Visscher: “This TNO project was an example in which sharing information can be of great value for all parties in the logistics supply chain. There is an efficiency advantage, and therefore profit, to be made in the Port of Amsterdam region within the logistic supply chain of barges with oil products.”

Real-time data

Considering the so-called ‘front door’, the IJmuiden North Lock uses a dynamic lock scheduling method. This schedules incoming vessels 48 hours in advance and outgoing vessels 24 ahead. The result is more efficient vessel movements: “Agencies and terminals can see well in advance when there will be enough room in the lock to accommodate their vessel, and can plan their capacity accordingly.” 

For operators approaching from inland, vessels can use the recently installed national Inland Shipping Berth Information System (BLIS). With BLIS connection, inland vessel operators have access to real-time data about berth usage in participating ports. “In a busy harbour like Amsterdam it is important to optimise the flow of traffic within the port,” continues Visscher. “What’s more, the feedback that we have received from inland shippers has been very positive. BLIS makes it easier for them to find available berths and prevents unnecessary vessel manoeuvres. This leads to lower fuel costs and fewer emissions – profitable for both the operator and the environment.” The significance of this can be seen in the very fact that 56 per cent of all the cargo transport from and to the Amsterdam port region occurs by inland navigation.

In Rotterdam SmartPort, the research institute of the Port of Rotterdam, and Portbase, the organisation that connects participants in the supply chain of Dutch ports, have announced their cooperation to develop a data-sharing research programme to improve logistical processes in the port environment. Using data from Portbase’s so-called Port Community System, the research project – named ‘The Data SandBoXX’ – will centralise research questions for universities and research institutes such as TNO. The project will begin looking at harbour-related information and develop into analysis of the entire supply chain.

For the port sector today, technology is evidently having a major impact on improving safety, accessibility and efficiency. The future is exciting as this trend will only continue.

Tom Scott

This article was previously published in Maritime Holland edition #7– 2016

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