At the Maasvlakte, the future of container handling is slowly but surely taking shape. Here, TNO is cooperating with various logistics companies to make use of novel technology that had previously been developed in the context of a European project. This technology enables trucks’ arrival times and waiting times to be accurately predicted, thus greatly enhancing the efficiency of the container terminal’s logistics process. It’s a win-win situation for the terminal operators and the carriers, both in terms of time and money.
The essence of this technology involves linking data from the participating companies and from public data sources, and making it available in real time. It is possible to continually track the location of any given truck on the road and to monitor the amount of traffic at the container terminal. Smart algorithms are used to translate this information into predictions for the next few hours, including the resultant waiting times for trucks. In effect, this means that the full impact of a motorway traffic jam, for example, can be immediately calculated. The transport company, the truck driver and the terminal operator will be aware of exactly how this will affect their scheduling, and will be able to modify this immediately. For instance, if they have prior knowledge of exactly when a truck driver will be arriving to pick up a given container, the terminal operator can arrange for the container to be ready for collection, thus avoiding the need to first move other containers out of the way. That means huge profits, as it costs money to move containers around.
How does it work exactly?
Almost every truck is now equipped with a trip computer (on-board unit). TNO’s system establishes a link to these units, enabling it to track each and every truck involved. The terminal operator knows exactly where any given container is located. That information, too, is input into the system, as are the carriers’ schedules. We also feed the system with information from external public data sources, concerning current traffic levels and weather conditions, for example. The system provides the terminal with a continuous, real-time picture of activity levels over the next few hours, and of any changes that might have an impact on this. The system gives the carriers details of the trucks’ turnaround times at the terminal, enabling them to adjust their schedule accordingly. “It all sounds pretty straightforward”, says TNO expert Siem van Merriënboer, “but our mathematicians, IT specialists and logistics experts have had to solve some pretty thorny problems along the way. Ultimately, this will be of great benefit to the industry. Better planning, more effective use of everyone's capacity, higher productivity and a smoother flow of containers through the terminal. This achievement shows the world what we are capable of. Because ports from Vancouver to Sydney are all impatiently waiting for this very solution”, says Siem.
“This achievement shows the world what we are capable of. Ports from Vancouver to Sydney are all impatiently waiting for this very solution”
Schedules turned upside down
The logistics application was recently developed in the European DEMANES project, together with a consortium of knowledge institutions and commercial companies. Using this application, we have demonstrated that obtaining real-time access to information from different data sources, and notifying stakeholders of the results, can be very effective. In the Port of Rotterdam, we are now running experiments on a much larger scale. The problem is that terminals cannot predict how busy they will be at any given time of the day. Schedules are continually being turned upside down due to unexpected events on the road or container ships that suddenly switch to a different route. Accordingly, the trucks that arrive to pick a given container face increasing waiting times and a loss of productivity, resulting in unnecessary costs.
Real-time exchange of information
This development is just one of the applications to emerge from the Smart Data Factory (SDF) for logistics, which was developed by TNO. This technology is designed to help parties in the logistics sector exchange information, quickly and reliably. In this area, it is often difficult to get cooperative ventures between the various parties up and running, yet there are enormous profits to be made. The SDF neither collects nor saves any data, what it does do is organize the real-time exchange of information. The parties themselves decide what data they provide to whom, while TNO guarantees that the data traffic involved is one hundred percent secure.
“In the area of logistics, this technology has an enormous range of potential applications”, says Siem. “We have already completed three of these (see sidebar, ed.). Meanwhile, in the Port of Rotterdam, development work on yet another application is in full swing. This one will take more time, due to the sheer complexity of the subject matter involved. Also, we plan to scale up the application to enable many more parties in the chain to get involved. We plan to organize this centrally, working through the Dutch Alliance of Sea-container Carriers (AZV), a sub-sector of the Dutch Association for Transport and Logistics (TLN) trade association. The AZV has stated that it is prepared to make its data available for innovative developments of this kind. More participants means more trucks and containers to track, which enables us to refine our predictions even further.”
Off with the lab coats, on with the boots
TNO’s preferred approach here involves what is known as a ‘Living Lab’. This is a testing ground where technologies that have been proven in small-scale settings are rolled out in everyday practice at various companies, in partnership with the companies in question. ‘Off with the lab coats, on with the boots’ is how TNO describes this process. Experiments involving substances and materials are, of course, carried out in our laboratories. In these testing grounds, however, we carry out experiments – together with the business community – to find ways of improving their day-to-day operations. In this way, we accelerate the pace of innovation and bring about genuine transitions: innovations that make a difference.
Real-time data sharing pays off. TNO has proved this using practical applications in logistics chains. Three tangible examples of such applications are now up and running. As always, the key is the smart and secure exchange of data.
Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has greatly improved its cargo handling operations. In the past, when a cargo plane landed, trucks from many different logistics service providers immediately converged on the area to collect their goods. The result: congestion, air pollution and inefficiency. Together with the companies involved, TNO implemented a solution in which all of the cargo is collected by a single truck, and then distributed to the various carriers.
In the Port of Amsterdam, companies transporting oil products experimented with ‘cone ships’. Here too, the wharf often became congested with vessels that were either trying to find a berth or waiting to be unloaded. Tracking these vessels in real-time, together with smarter routing, has made quayside operations much more efficient, while minimizing the risk of disasters.
Using inland shipping to move containers in the corridor between the Port of Rotterdam and its hinterland, through distribution centres in the Venlo region, takes too much time. It can sometimes take up to ten days for a container to reach its destination. A great deal of time can be saved by linking data from the schedules of the parties involved. We used a demonstrator to show how this could be organized more efficiently. Together with a number of companies, we are currently setting up a pilot project to test the solution in their operational processes.