Partners and Private Wireless Technology Are Driving Port 4.0

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Published Sep 5, 2023 1:18 PM by Nathan Stenson

If nothing else, the COVID-19 epidemic made abundantly clear the fragility of the global supply chain and the need for port and terminal operators to become more agile and responsive to disruptions and changing conditions.

Polling of supply chain executives by Ernst & Young revealed that 72% reported the pandemic had a negative effect on their companies.[1] Furthermore, the report concluded that the pandemic “brought priorities such as visibility, resilience and digitization to the fore.”

With 90% of traded goods transported by sea and maritime trade volumes expected to triple by 2050[2], the mandate for change is clear. However, many ports are still operating on paper-based systems and siloed operations which hinder the collection, analysis, and sharing of data. This greatly limits their ability to optimize operations and keep the global supply chain from disruption.

There is little doubt that ports and marine terminals can reap significant benefits from digitalization. These benefits include:

  • More effective collaboration with other data-driven and transparent players in the intermodal supply chain
  • Optimization of port operations for greater efficiency and productivity
  • Increased worker safety for terminal personnel, contractors, and visitors
  • Improved port security for people, assets, and goods
  • Better communication, not just among people, but also between people and machines
  • Improved collaboration among all onsite stakeholders, including port authorities, terminal operators, maritime authorities, and logistics organizations
  • Improved sustainability due to lower fuel consumption

For ports and terminal operators to fully reap these benefits, it requires strategic vision, technology – and above all – partners with industry and technology knowledge and expertise.

Issues facing ports today

Even before COVID-19 hit, ports were dealing with some challenging issues that have only grown since:

  • Limited yard space. As trade volume continues to grow, ports are under increasing pressure to optimize yard and terminal operations and better utilize assets.
  • Environmental concerns. Congestion at yard/port terminals creates negative environmental impacts due to unnecessarily high fuel consumption. This is not insignificant, as shipping represents nearly 3% of total greenhouse emissions. With longer wait times due to congestion and/or a shortage of port pilots, carbon emissions increase. There is also a negative economic impact for shipping companies, as fuel costs represent up to 60% of total ship operating costs[3].
  • Worker safety issues. According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), fatal injuries in marine terminal and port operations occur at an annual rate five times higher than the U.S. workforce overall – and nonfatal injuries and illnesses are twice as high.[4] There are many reasons for this, including the volume of heavy cargo, dangerous or misplaced equipment, and congestion and high activity levels at yards and terminals that put workers at greater risk.
  • Port security problems. According to a report from the nonprofit Transported Asset Protection Association (TAPA), there were 11,332 reported cargo thefts in 78 countries over a recent 18-month period in the EMEA region alone[5]. That’s nearly 21 thefts per day.
  • Inadequate asset management, maintenance, and tracking. Ports and terminals rely on costly, complex equipment to keep operations on track, but many fall short in their efforts to manage, maintain, and track that equipment to ensure maximum uptime and cost savings.

How digitalization can help these issues – and more

Digital solutions can be applied to all these issues, helping to take waste, inefficiency, and risk out of port and terminal operations. Digital opportunities that deliver the greatest return-on-investment (RoI) include:

  • Yard automation. Automating yard operations enables better coordination of activities among all stakeholders, optimizing operations and making just-in-time deliveries possible.
  • Warehouse automation. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) and Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) are rapidly becoming the norm, as they improve efficiency, relieve employees of tedious tasks, improve worker safety, and streamline warehouse management.
  • IIoT-enabled equipment. Equipping port machinery with Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors enables equipment to self-monitor, alerting staff to emerging issues and maintenance needs before they cause equipment failure or downtime. IIoT also supports asset location and tracking.
  • Process automation. There are many opportunities to automate port processes. At port gates, entry/exit logs, verification, and docking payments can be performed with the help of relevant technology. This makes the process flow more smoothly, reducing the use of paper and capturing data for analysis and decision support. Automated ship-to-shore cranes deliver containers safely from ships around the clock, and robots can automate cargo handling post-offloading. When computer-controlled, the planning and execution process becomes extremely smooth, achieving the required outcomes in the shortest possible time.
  • Remote control of machines/vehicles. While robots can take on many tasks, others are best suited to human remote control. This balance of utilizing both employees and robots minimizes fatigue and protects worker safety.
  • New and future opportunities that leverage Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). From gate automation and vehicle booking systems, to yard crane scheduling and traffic management, seamless wireless connectivity available everywhere will make it possible to capture the data generated by each transportation mode, update it, and analyze it using AI and ML. This, in turn, will enable predictive data analysis for better planning of resources and personnel, simplified documentation processing and real-time transparency between intermodal supply chain partners.

Why private wireless networks make the best sense for ports

All of these digitalization opportunities require the highest levels of network connectivity, availability, and reliability. That is not a small task for most ports, which operate across broad geographic areas and include sizeable stretches of open water. Even if you could build a Wi-Fi network for a property of that size (how could you install Wi-Fi nodes in the middle of an open harbor?), it would require a massive amount of equipment due to the limitations of Wi-Fi’s reach and mobility.

In addition, ports often have line-of-sight barriers that disrupt Wi-Fi signals and nearby electronic interference can also affect Wi-Fi performance. That’s why a private wireless network makes the most sense for ports.

A private wireless network is just like the commercial wireless networks we all use for mobile phone voice and data communications, except that it is privately owned, access is limited to authorized users and devices, and the network is configured to meet the specific needs of the site, its applications, use cases, and security needs.

Compared to Wi-Fi, an LTE or 5G private wireless network requires far fewer access points, can operate over greater distances (including open water), is not affected by line-of-sight issues, and offers the high availability and reliability needed for ‘round-the-clock’ operations and security and safety during emergencies.

Because less equipment is required to build a private wireless network, it is more affordable to install and maintain than Wi-Fi. For example, a typical medium-sized port that would require 51 Wi-Fi access points to ensure coverage needs, would only need three LTE private wireless access points to cover the same area. That also means a lower total cost of ownership because the three-access-point private wireless network consumes 84% less energy than the Wi-Fi network. In addition, a private wireless network can be easily expanded to accommodate future digital capabilities, while Wi-Fi expansion requires major rework and expense.

The partners in a digital port solution

Choosing the right networking technology is essential to port digitalization, but a complete private wireless solution requires the participation and expertise of a team of partners. Typically, such a team is composed of:

  • A mobile service provider to supply spectrum and managed services
  • A specialized Global Systems Integrator (GSI) or Value-Added Reseller (VAR) to provide design, installation, networking, and other services. A GSI or VAR with port operational knowledge and experience can ensure that the port’s applications and use cases are fully supported by the network.
  • A private wireless technology provider to supply the appropriate equipment and network management solution for the port, as well as any customization that may be required to meet unique needs.
  • Maritime and logistics companies operating on the port site to ensure their systems are integrated with the final solution.
  • Other stakeholders who deserve a seat at the table, including port authority, governmental organizations, employee/union representatives, and tenant organizations. As the people whose daily lives will be most affected by the solution, their buy-in is essential to successful adoption.

Working in concert with port operators, these partners can craft and adopt a tailored solution that addresses all needs, enables all opportunities, and ensures manageable growth.

Private wireless ports in action

The number of ports and terminal operators who have digitalized their facilities with private wireless networks is growing daily. Here are some recent examples:

A multifaceted port on the North Sea that handles 50+ million tons of cargo per year turned to a team led by a telecom service provider partner to deploy a 5G private wireless network in 2019. The network is being used to link tugs, cameras, and sensors, as well as providing connectivity for a sea sluice.

One of the most modern multipurpose maritime terminals on the Caribbean Sea recently deployed a 4.9G private wireless network and edge computing solution. Built by a mobile operator collaborating with a private wireless technology provider, the terminal’s digital transformation is automating a large hydrocarbon terminal. Applications include the tracking of up to 20,000 vehicles at peak capacity, providing connectivity between TOS (Terminal Operation Systems) and personnel, and between cranes in docks and yards to optimize operations.

A port on the Gulf of Bothnia in Northern Europe that handles 6.7 million tons of international cargo uses its private wireless network to automate operations across three ports, connecting 15 different companies over a 580 hectare (1433 acre) area. The network was created by a team comprised of an edge connectivity systems integrator partner, a mobile operator, and a private wireless technology provider. Real-time loading information enables vessels to arrive just-in-time when there is a free slot at the quay, which saves fuel and sensor information triggers fuel refilling and emptying of wastewater tanks.

Turning a digital port vision into reality

As these examples show, digital transformation is well underway at ports around the world. Port and terminal operators contemplating how to begin their digital journey should begin by thinking about the use cases they need to effectively operate today and into the future and prioritize them based on need and requirements to deploy.

With those priorities in mind, it’s time to consult with trusted advisors to build a strong ecosystem of channel and technology partners. In evaluating prospective partners, proven port experience is a must-have. Choosing a private wireless network from an experienced provider and partner will ensure that the full range of port-related use cases are supported, with a solution that will support growing demands for digitalization.  

Deployment should begin with the lowest-hanging fruit – use cases that are less complex to implement and yield near-term benefits. From there, the digital journey is all about leveraging partnerships to build on successes, learn from experience, and add capabilities incrementally.

Nathan Stenson is Vice President - Global Partner Channel at Nokia.

For more information on Nokia's private wireless networks, please visit https://www.nokia.com/industries/ports/.


[1] https://www.ey.com/en_us/supply-chain/how-covid-19-impacted-supply-chains-and-what-comes-next

[2] https://www.oecd.org/ocean/topics/ocean-shipping/

[3] https://www.morethanshipping.com/fuel-costs-ocean-shipping/

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/maritime/industries/port_operations.html

[5] https://tapaemea.org/members-category/nev-cargo-theft-report/

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.