How 5G technology could unlock new opportunities at ports and across industry

Ajith Parlikad, head of the Asset Management research group at the IfM, tells Jason Naselli about his new research project piloting 5G applications at the port of Felixstowe, and how the potential benefits can boost the UK economy.

Institute for Manufacturing
IfM Insights


Port of Felixstowe South Terminal. Image: Nik Morris/Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

At a very basic level, 5G is simply a faster network, offering lower latency, which means higher speeds of data traffic, and more bandwidth, which means higher volumes of data can be transferred across the data pipeline, compared to 4G. But this speed is unlocking a wide range of new applications that were simply unachievable at lower speeds, opening up new possibilities for industry.

Our new project looks at these potential applications in the port of Felixstowe, funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as part of a series of grants that they have been providing to explore the benefits of 5G in industrial environments.

Improving productivity at ports

Ports are very complex sites where lots of different types of equipment come together to provide the service that ports offer, mainly the shipment of goods. The port of Felixstowe is Britain’s biggest and busiest container port, handling more than 4 million containers from approximately 3,000 ships each year, including the largest container vessels afloat today. It is the first port in Britain to begin to adopt this technology, and is well placed to benefit from it.

Similar to airplanes, which make money when they are in the air, ships make money when they are transporting goods from one place to another, and they make less money when they are sitting in the port. So, turnaround time in port is crucial to profitability. Additionally, if a ship is delayed and has to speed up to make its slot at another European port, the fuel consumption and CO2 emissions increase exponentially.

An important factor in the turnaround time of ships is what they call in the parlance ‘moves per hour’ — how many containers are being moved per hour by the cranes, trucks and other equipment — which is used to measure productivity.

One of the things that hampers this productivity is equipment downtime — cranes failing or moving slowly, for instance, or simply the amount of time and effort it takes to control the cranes.

Our project looks at how 5G can improve moves per hour by exploiting the benefits of high bandwidth and lower latency.

There are two key applications this project is examining. One is how to use 5G technology to remotely control cranes, with improved benefits for worker safety in addition to increased moves per hour. This uses high-definition cameras to capture crane movements and to use that to automatically control the cranes. At such a complex site, with more than 100 cranes, that’s a lot of data being pumped out, so this is an application that is simply not possible with 4G.

What we’re mainly focusing on at the IfM, though, is the failures and downtimes of the cranes themselves. The goal is to use of the Internet of Things and sensor technologies to monitor the condition of critical parts within the quay cranes — the ones that actually load and unload containers from the ships — and to use the data collected by those condition monitoring sensors to detect any problems that are happening.

We want to be able to alert the cranes to stop and be fixed as quickly as possible, but better than that, to predict when failures are going to happen, so planned maintenance can be targeted at these areas before the failure actually happens.

This is particularly critical where we are monitoring safety equipment or detecting safety critical failures. We want to be able to actually provide real-time feedback and control to the cranes as well, so if something is going to break, like a rope, the whole operation can be stopped. The real-time nature of data and control becomes critical to make that happen, and the hope is that 5G will offer that level of real-time control.

We are now in the pilot phase where we have understood what failures happen in a crane and have identified the sensors that can detect those failures. We are looking at 50–60 sensors on a single crane, measuring things like temperature and vibrations, sending data out at a very high rate. If you roll that out to 100 cranes, again, the volume of data that is being handled is too large for a 4G network to handle.

The alternative of course is to have wired connections rather than wireless, which would provide that kind of low latency. However, cranes at a port are a mobile asset, so wires are not a feasible option, and the cost compared to a wireless solution where connections can easily be switched is much greater. So 5G is critical for successful deployment.

Benefits beyond ports

We are hoping to see the applications of the research provide benefits beyond ports. 5G is an early technology that is just beginning to be explored, and the uses we are looking at in Felixstowe could have applications in other complex industrial environments.

If you think about a large refinery, for example, there is a massive amount of equipment but in most refineries only critical equipment is being monitored in real time, and mostly through wired connection. So, a 5G solution would increase the ability to scale this concept up to many moving parts in a complex facility, because the ease of deployment is much lower than other existing solutions.

We also want to share our lessons with other ports around the UK. As major gateways for our international trade, it’s in the interest of the whole economy that ports become more productive.

As the research is still in the early stages, it’s still not possible to guarantee that all this will work, or that 5G can be rolled out across these application areas. But the early signs are positive, and it is likely that in the next few years, this sort of data-centric, predictive asset management and maintenance will become more deployed or adopted across different industry sectors because the technology allows it. As deployment widens and costs come down, it will look like an even better business case for a range of companies.

As told to Jason Naselli