customer experiences

Port efficiency needs more than just data technology

15 July 2019 • 3 min reading time

It is already possible to predict the arrival times of seagoing ships with a reasonable degree of accuracy, Vopak and TNO have concluded after an exploratory study. Using easy accessible public information sources and the right data technology are important ingredients. This is the first step towards the more efficient handling of ships in ports. But to make a real success of this, more attention will need to be given to human factors.

More information?

Would you like to know more about the consortium’s findings? Or about TNO’s data analysis models? Then get in touch with Gerwin Zomer.

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The Port of Rotterdam admits almost 30,000 seagoing ships every year, all of which need to be unloaded, loaded, or both. This is a complex logistical operation. The port is so crowded that many ships are obliged to lie at anchor in the North Sea for hours or even days. This is very inefficient, and Vopak feels that with today’s data technology it ought to be possible to do things much better.

Many initiatives

Vopak has over four centuries’ experience in the storage and transhipment of goods, with transport by sea playing a major role, and the company is very active in the Port of Rotterdam. In 2019 you would expect everyone involved in marine transport to be making full use of data technology to exchange information and closely monitor ship movements. However, although there have been many initiatives to this end, including the ones initiated by Port of Rotterdam , things are by no means as efficient as Vopak would wish. 

“You often see ships going at full speed towards the port and then having to wait there for a long time before they can berth and unload”

more Efficiency, less COemission

In 2016, Vopak decided to involve TNO. Their collaboration gave rise to a consortium whose aim was to calculate ship arrival times more precisely. “You often see ships going at full speed towards the port and then having to wait there for a long time before they can load or unload,” says Erik Lankamp, Vopak innovation manager. “It might be half a day, a whole day, or even two days. All very inefficient, of course. If these ships had advance knowledge of when it would be their turn, they could have taken it easier on the way to the port. Then when they arrived they wouldn’t have to wait as long, and the port would be less crowded – much more efficient! – and there would be less CO2 emission, too.” 


“The parties that TNO invited to join the consortium all immediately recognised the benefits in data-sharing and closer cooperation, which was quite remarkable. But it’s essential, too,” emphasizes Lankamp, “because open-minded attitudes are a condition for successful innovation.”

a good mix 

Besides Vopak the consortium included a shipping company, a terminal operator, a variety of service and support providers, and an Erasmus University professor. “It was a good mix of parties,” says Gerwin Zomer, the TNO business consultant who led the project. “It brought some different backgrounds to the table, and that led to interesting, substantive discussions and new insights.”

“Thanks to a variety of data analysis models we were able to use public data to approach a 90-minute accuracy”

up to 90 minute accuracy

How accurate does the ETA (estimated time of arrival) of a seagoing ship have to be for this information to be really useful for those involved? The consortium was given a clear answer: accurate to within 90 minutes. “Our exploratory studies made use of only easily-available public databases,” says Zomer, “but thanks to a number of data analysis models we were able to use this public data to approach a 90-minute accuracy in ETA..”

changing behaviour

During the consortium’s final evaluation, no participant doubted that it was possible to determine the ETA with greater accuracy than the market actually needed. But this wasn’t the next step. “Accurate ETA notifications aren’t enough,” explains Lankamp. “To really improve efficiency, shipping companies, tugs, operators and other service providers will have to start working in a different way. To have their actions guided by data will mean changing their behaviour. And that’s not easy: people find all change difficult, especially when they’ve been doing things the same way for many years. This behaviour change will only happen when everyone genuinely appreciates the added value of this new, data-driven system.” 

“To really improve efficiency, shipping companies, tugs, operators and other service providers will have to start working in a different way”

Rotterdam? Singapore?

“In the meantime, existing agreements and contracts mean that some parties profit from ships having to wait,” adds Zomer. “If a ship is not handled within the agreed laytime, it’s given financial compensation. If a ship has insufficient return freight, that can be an attractive option; delay compensation effectively means being paid to wait. Of course, from a systems perspective this is far from ideal.”

“So we need system innovation,” he continues. “And to be able to do that, TNO first needs to clearly identify and map the current and future processes, working methods and agreements related to a port call. We’re now thinking about which port would be most appropriate for this study. It could be any major port in the world; Rotterdam, or Singapore, for instance. Watch this space!”


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