Sea Change Will Drive Ports to Power Up

Maurizio Bragagni
Nov 30, 2017 · 13 min read

The seas have always presented challenge and change to business, and to politicians working internationally. Change it seems is the one constant in maritime business, and that much-used phrase ‘sea change’ certainly describes new developments in one of the world’s biggest industries.

My company, Tratos Cavi, has been an active innovator of port cabling for well over two decades. Advances in automation not only improve ports’ performance, they are a big step forward in safeguarding the people who work within the industry.

It’s clear that globalisation is slowing and new and better ways of working within the maritime and ports sector are becoming a bigger imperative.

As a supplier of specialist cables, we work closely with customers to find better, more environmentally friendly solutions to their challenges to drive better, cleaner and safer performance.

The Innovation Circle

Power and emissions are two big challenges for port authorities. The right cable can enable big gains for ports. Cables capable of working with AMP systems can minimise emissions from ships in port. Working together, cable innovation is a game-changer for ports.

The cable industry is diverse and flexible. It covers off transport (road, rail, sea and air), power, communications, construction and more. There is a long-established heritage of working with the delivery of clean, alternative power — wind farms and solar installations.

Examining some of the gains in industries which share the challenge of operating in a more environmentally sensitive way is a practical route to accessing helpful technologies. Looking at these synergistic challenges, and how other industries have tamed them, will be invaluable as ports look to find the smartest, fastest, cleanest and safest ways to keep our world moving.

Ports business is built on efficiency. Speedy, safe and secure cargo turnaround is imperative to keep the busiest ports at the top of the performance league table. Mine is an innovation-led business, but the innovations we explore can often be suggested by the customers we work alongside.

It is by looking at your challenges that companies like mine move on to develop cables with increased pulling tension. We hold the worldwide ports’ community in mind when we’re working towards product developments that will help change your business for the better — with advances such as easier electrification of diesel RTG cranes for example.

Drivers of Emerging Port Technology

As the market matures and globalisation slows change within your business, as well as its challenges, dictate our response as a stakeholder in that business. It’s true to say that there has been an uncertain climate for trade across the UK, Europe and in the US and the demand for container shipping has slowed — but it doesn’t mean that there is no work to do.

The rise of mega ships has put strain on ports and resulted in an environmental impact that is raising questions. All of the questions these shifts in the patterns of port business, and how they are tackled, have to be answered, and quickly. There is a feeling in the port industry that a new era of investment is approaching as new trade agreements are forged and the shape of shipping changes beyond all recognition.

Change always makes ripples — sometimes it makes waves; big ones.

With the new breed of gargantuan ships comes a tide of change and challenges. We are working with you, within this industry, to find solutions to minimise the impact of these great ships, contributing to progressive development of alternative maritime power (AMP).

Connecting ships in port to the electrical grid enables crew to power on board services, systems and equipment. As the ship’s power dependency is switched there are advantages — a reduction in noise and emissions. It’s in demand and the most effective means of reducing pollution from ships in port. And, of course, this is incredibly important beyond the port perimeter. Many ports’ near neighbours include local communities. Mixed development will often see residential property a short step away from business units on the periphery of ports’ boundaries. These communities are already living with the land-traffic generated by port business. An increase in marine transportation — ships are getting bigger and more of these mega ships are on the way — invariably means greater air pollution unless workable solutions can be found.

That is why, if ports are to be good citizens, it is of paramount importance for port cities to invest time and energy in finding a way to live alongside residential communities alongside the fringes of the waterfront.

So, port infrastructure has to respond. The electric installation necessary for ships’ supply must be designed ahead of time to realise the benefits for a range of different ship types.

It is complicated, one size doesn’t fit all — ships from different countries are equipped with different electric systems. To succeed the solution has to cater for visiting ships and their estimated power demands.

Changing world; world-changing advances

Marine transportation plays a significant role in world

transport. Some 90% of goods

traded internationally are transported by sea.

Ships are a significant contributor to exhaust gas emissions and, consequently, pollution. It’s estimated that in the European Union the emission of NOx and SOx by ships will have exceeded the land-based source emission by 2020. This prediction has taken the focus on cleaner marine energy in ports significantly higher up the agenda.

Because of many ports’ own development requirements — an appetite for new road infrastructure, the need for bigger container storage facilities, deep water berths for mega ships — cleaner energy is incredibly important.

The responsibility for the prevention of air pollution by ships in port and for enforcing the adoption of introduced solutions rests with port authorities and sea administration offices.

They may be subject to national policies on environmental protection which may differ significantly from those within the EU.

Shore power supply, apart from minimizing negative impact on the environment, has economic benefits. In short, it’s cheaper as well as better.

The time to unravel the problems of connections that don’t connect — and standardise for the benefit of all — is now and we, within my company, believe technology will find the answer if co-operation opens the door.

Electric incompatibility is the main obstacle; therefore supplying the vessel’s electric system by means of a land electric grid is relatively rare. And problems are not merely posed by the inability to provide the correct connection. As you know, when a ship switches power source there is a short black-out. There are obvious health and safety arguments to support keeping the power supply uninterrupted.

So ports are no longer traditional interfaces between land and sea, but many of them are challenged with being more than that while operating within the confines of a site first conceived a century or more earlier.

Intermodal megaports demand deep-water docking, smooth access for trucks and rail services. They have a requirement for material handling equipment on a scale previously unimaginable and need a super-sophisticated logistics network to manage it all.

Panamax and post-Panamax containerships have been calling the tune and driven expansion of the old and establishment of the brand new — such as Shanghai’s Yangshan. These developments and this investment have been driven by the competition to lure these ships and distribute on a scale hitherto beyond our comprehension.

Yet in the face of all this growth, it’s the reductions that can be achieved that will give the best performing ports the competitive advantage.

Port security has become an increasingly important issue in an uncertain world, calling for better communication systems for management, surveillance and control.

Challenge and change are positive influencers for quality and efficiency

Safe, sustainable, secure, faster, bigger and more efficient — most of these areas rely on making the right choice of cable. As we get closer to meeting these constant challenges, they drift away, just that little bit further toward the horizon and shift their shape, inviting port authorities to kick harder in pursuit. And that’s to be welcomed; a culture of continuous improvement is to be valued, so long as we recognise perfect balance when it presents itself.

We adopt the same attitude in our own cable business. For your business to be sustainable, the choices you make now have to offer flexibility, reliability, strength, safety and longevity. And they have to offer environmental advantages. This is where we innovate our product to enhance your business.

Your business and ours — they’re symbiotic. Your new-breed ports demand security-enhancing cables for tracking, tagging, cable for surveillance and sensors, CCTV. Our businesses pull each other’s up the ladder. You need environmentally safe cable to reduce port pollution and improve energy efficiency — and we respond. Of course, wherever we’re already doing this kind of work, across other industries, ports are benefiting from transferable technologies developed by cable manufacturers across multiple industries.

Cable manufacturers are fully signed-up stakeholders to a productive and successful future for ports.

Industry and logistics power ports and ports power economic growth. Progress has to be unstoppable. But then, it has always been that way.

I say so because we are standing together on the edge of the fourth industrial revolution. These are exciting times for everyone, with our ports the gatekeepers.

To survive the latest challenges to our world, including those self-created challenges, we must not only adapt, but adapt in the right way.

Change: A Constant as we explore the 4th Industrial Revolution

Early explorers discovered new continents and brought diseases previously unknown to their inhabitants, wiping out indigenous populations with a sneeze. They helped themselves to others’ mineral and natural resources — from precious metals to coffee and cotton — and changed the ways of these ‘new worlds’ forever. Shipping was at the heart of a fast-changing world then as it is now, and it was the primary enabler for early shifts in how the world did business.

The first commercial ‘quake’ was triggered by that nation of mariners, the Portuguese.

As the world got smaller and explorers bolder, a chain of change was set in motion. With it came slavery and mass manufacturing. England’s peasants became factory workers and a land-grab saw rich native lands snapped up, driven by a pure commercial imperative — some might call it greed and exploitation.

It was the beginning of European domination of the world and new and exotic goods and raw materials flooded into the northern hemisphere.

The arrival of cotton — from India — changed the way we lived, looked — and smelled (as we abandoned heavy wool for something lighter) — as well as the economy.

So nothing about industrial revolutions is ‘new’. Even this one, the fourth, although powered by the internet it doesn’t affect the desire and need for goods, or the need to transport them by sea — just the way we buy them.

This industrial revolution, the one we’re owning and living through right now, has huge potential; potential for good. Costs drop when efficiencies increase. The world shrinks, ships get bigger and ports must anticipate. Artificial Intelligence has been around for 50 years, but its development is accelerating through a steepening curve. This revolution will work smarter because it is smarter, we have a tiger by the tail, now we need to learn how to train it, not tame it.

AI has started to ignite inspiration for port businesses looking to reduce costs and increase efficiency. In an industry as tightly choreographed as container shipping, it’s no surprise that we’re looking to AI to manage every element of container logistics, to integrate shipping, storage and handle redirection.

My company is of course highly engaged with the interconnectedness of the internet and AI and industries’ ability to programme ‘perfection.’ Our cabling diversity stretches from the finest, lightest fibre optic cable to the heaviest port reeling cables — so our links to port business go from communications and security to smarter powering up for Mega ships.

Of course it’s not just port businesses that are hailing AI as a one-stop-shop for commercial advantage.

But, because AI removes the human dimension at work when considering problems and challenges, an AI-enabled platform is of particular interest for ports. It unlocks access to a system capable of informing shipping companies’ decisions on how to save time and money.

AI is as described, and it is capable of learning, but we should be reminded that it will do this without passion and without emotion — not very Italian (!)

Machine learning consumes data and nothing else as it gains knowledge. That is a very ‘sterile’ decision-making climate and I would argue that there is still a place for the human touch — and experience gained in the real world.

AI-enabled logistics platforms can predict the likelihood of delays to a high percentage of accuracy, and act accordingly, but influencing factors outside the experience of a mechanical brain do happen, and if they haven’t ever been experienced, then they can’t be foreseen or managed.

Artificial Intelligence is nothing without human experience and organic intelligence

People are still key to this industry, and the experienced people are key to those incoming with these new technologies, because that’s where the real value of human interface lies.

There is no doubt that superior information, faster processing and greater automation are desirable and will deliver much improved reliability. All of it will make a huge difference to the landscape for jobs as ports move towards greater automation — but I wouldn’t rule out the creation of new jobs, jobs we haven’t quite envisaged yet.

Disruption in business is to be welcomed. Change isn’t always comfortable; it’s just a question of buckling up — and knuckling down to training that tiger.

Some polishing up of ‘old technology’ has made waves too. I’ve already referenced the expansion of the Panama Canal — that corner-cutting stretch of water has, once again, made a fundamental impact.

Ports have had to invest in deepening and widening ship channels and shore-side infrastructure to support larger vessels and stay competitive. These giants and their gargantuan cargo capacity have pushed visceral change in their bow-waves.

In one visit they deliver an exponentially extended quantity of goods — and ports have had to stretch to match, handle and despatch — or miss out. The level of investment is staggering.

And the impact of this newest generation of ships surges out from the port itself to trigger an acute need for adapted road infrastructure. So impact shock-waves will continue to shake beyond port authorities’ footprints.

Congestion surrounding a port will limit the flow of goods, even if the port’s internal capacity to handle cargo has expanded. Many ports face limitations to expansion ambitions due to competing land uses.

Development of ports’ people, and I do keep coming back to this, will be critical as we open up further to technology-driven trade. Advanced load-unload technology is likely to reduce the number of workers needed to manage cargo. Balancing technology-driven efficiency gains with manpower issues will be complex, but investment in the people driving the technology must be a given. They need to understand more than the technology — they need to understand the theory and the practice of the job the technology is doing.

So ports are not without challenges; even finding somewhere to store empty containers for re-use has to be distilled to a fine art.

But environment is one of the biggest. We’ve looked at air quality and emissions. Now I’m talking about the work environment — keeping it safe for your people. Port operations’ impact on land use, air and water quality, has to be addressed, even when perhaps not every answer is at hand yet, but the health and safety of those closest to home, and on whom the business relies, has to remain a priority.

Many ports are rightly investing in cleaner technologies and environmentally-friendly operating practices. These will only get more challenging as those cleaner technologies arrive, but economic factors also have the potential for serious impact.

International economic downturns can cause significant and two-way trade slowdowns. Increasing trade demands, while welcome, can lead to pressure for physical expansion where there is very little room to achieve more space, and of course investment funding is not a bottomless resource.

Substantial resources are dedicated to the impact of extreme weather events and sea level rise while the race to restore a balance of nature continues.

So, there is pain, there is considerable gain if these sea changes can be not only accommodated but used to drive a faster hunt for efficiencies and environmental benefit.

Of course, there are strong political rip-tides at work to contend with too.

The global economy is jittery. President Trump’s threats against China on trade haven’t helped. Trade ties between the world’s two biggest economies have been under severe pressure with threats of investigations surrounding intellectual property breaches and a push to support the US stand over North Korea.

However, US ports are reportedly busier than ever, despite the president’s position. It remains to be seen how the row will develop — and how it might affect ports across the rest of the world.

Whatever the Chinese decide is the ‘hot button’, and how they choose to react, will have a global effect as Mr Trump continues sabre-rattling in an economic war with China.

China is investing heavily in technology and, if its plans go well, it will become the biggest economy in the world — putting US global economic influence in the shade.

The ultimate outcome? Who can say? One thing the Trump administration has been is consistent in its ability to surprise and its push for change at any cost.

So again, we come back to change. Changes in the way we do business, how we handle logistics, how we get cleaner and leaner and how we protect people and the environment whilst keeping world trade moving.

We, in my industry, are proud to be among the businesses that believe that there is no room for failure, nor is there need for it.

Together we have the technologies, the innovative thinking and the passion to control what we can control and manage the surprises to calm troubled waters and clear the air.

Maurizio Bragagni

Written by

Father of four. CEO of @Tratosgroup & @eShareLife Chairman. @CassBusiness MBA.

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