Chapter 2.4 – The Digital Transformation of Ports

Authors: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, Dr. Theo Notteboom & Dr. Athanasios Pallis

Digital transformation (or digitalization) is the integration of information technologies into business processes, changing how they operate and deliver value to their customers.

1. The Digital Transformation of Ports

Like several sectors of the economy, the port and maritime industries have been impacted by digital transformation. Technology is used to improve, at times substantially, the performance or reach of organizations, including their management, operations, and assets. Information technologies, combined with leadership, can turn technology into new opportunities. Digital transformation implies a managerial and cultural change that requires organizations to challenge existing practices and incorporate technology. Still, digital transformation has been an ongoing process since the 1990s with the massive diffusion of personal computers in organizations, a process expanded by networking technologies in the early 2000s. By 2010, a critical mass of storage and processing capabilities embedded in ubiquitous and large-scale information networks allowed new forms of digital transformation to occur, with the latest trend involving artificial intelligence. It relies on two complementary processes:

  • Digitization. The transformation of documents, including contracts, bills of lading, and any relevant information, into digital format. This allows for more effective analysis, storage, duplication, and transmission of information.
  • Digitalization. The transformation of business processes and operations through various forms of automation. It can range from the management of customer orders to terminal automation.

Digital transformation challenges organizations to adopt a set of key notions that have an impact on their governance and organization, including which strategies and business models should be implemented. The outcome is a reduction in human involvement, often resulting in the replacement or reduction in the amount of labor. These corporate challenges can also be found in the logistics industry, shipping, and ports. For example, port and logistics companies take on a customer-centric approach by adjusting objectives to include key performance indicators and metrics that measure customer satisfaction and, if necessary, overhauling the business processes that are seen as less efficient. Service reliability in a digital era implies that a company can deliver a service and that it should do so efficiently, conveniently, and consistently, a concept associated with the ease of doing business. Further, users and customers have expectations about being able to track the location and conditions of the cargo under their responsibility or property.

Another key to competitiveness relates to cooperation between supply chain partners and digital and integrated data solutions. Horizontal collaboration between transport companies and logistics service providers underlines the need for shorter, convenient, more sustainable, and cost-efficient supply chains. This entails additional complexities, mainly where it concerns mutual trust concerning data-sharing protocols and protecting respective competitiveness. Thus, cooperation is typically associated with new governance models to build trust among the parties involved and achieve a fair distribution of costs, efforts, revenues, and returns. However, there are several concerns to be addressed when developing cooperation initiatives and introducing performance measurement tools and systems across supply chains:

  • Lack of trust. Organizations are reluctant to share their internal data. Trust in data sharing, acquisition, and monitoring needs to be built as most of the data can be perceived as market-sensitive and could have damaging impacts on a firm’s competitiveness if compromised.
  • Lack of understanding. Many managers focus on internal systems, so moving to an inter-organizational scale often demands the development of a deeper understanding of what matters when cooperating with other parties in the chain.
  • Lack of control. Managers and organizations are often focused on initiatives and measures they can fully control. Inter-organizational measures are challenging to manage and thus control.
  • Different goals and objectives. The cooperation between organizations might lead to a confrontation between different goals and differing views on achieving these goals.
  • Information systems. Information systems often have to be adapted to include non-traditional information relating to supply chain performance. Also, information exchanges between organizations might be complicated by a lack of standards (in terms of units to use, structure, and format) and harmonized protocols and procedures.
  • Difficulty in linking to customer value. Not all organizations see the corporate and stakeholder value of cooperating with other organizations. They may have difficulties identifying and measuring possible value.
  • Deciding where to begin. Organizations might face challenges when starting to develop supply chain-wide practices and related performance measurements.

Service providers in logistics, shipping, and ports improve supply chains with the support of increasingly performant IT systems. The data component leverages service providers to transform into organizations with a new outlook on logistics services. Next to an increasing number of traditional activities being outsourced, such as transport, warehousing, and various types of value-added services, the presence of collaborative platforms enables service providers to develop new types of logistics services and share assets and capabilities.

Further, logistics, shipping, and port companies are rethinking their hiring strategies as the nature of jobs transforms with technology. Service providers invest in self-service systems to internally replace operational staff and improve the ease of doing business for customers. For example, advances have been made in cargo booking systems, cargo tracking systems, and invoicing, which have become paperless and available online. The ultimate objective behind these digital systems is to have staff perform only the tasks that the systems cannot do, such as exceptions. This implies staff moves towards new managerial, commercial, and programming roles as basic logistics tasks are automated.

2. ICT Innovations for Ports

A. Automation and innovation

The port and logistics sector is implementing technology and digital transformation strategies. Some innovations are particularly relevant and will affect almost all aspects of the transportation process. There are four categories of automation:

  • Robotics encompasses the use of robotics in container handling equipment such as automated mooring systems and automated ship-to-shore cranes. With automated ship-to-shore cranes, over 90% of the work duties are performed autonomously, with the final movement of the spread guided by an operator from a remote control room. Most container ports that have employed a significant form of robotics-based automation within the terminal have similarly incorporated automation into process-based and decision-based elements of the terminal operations.
  • Process automation involves the use of technology to automate processes external to cargo handling. These include gate processes in which a combination of hardware and software is used to minimize human involvement through appointment systems, vehicle and container identification detection, radiation scanning, driver identification, and routing within the terminal. It typically involves gate systems in which optical character recognition (OCR) and radio frequency identification (RFID) automate the inspection, clearance, and tracking of people and equipment moving into, out of, and within a terminal, with supervision and exceptions handled from a control room.
  • Decision-making automation involves using technology to guide and optimize decisions related to stowage and yard planning, container positioning, and vehicle and equipment scheduling. It involves intelligent terminal operating systems (TOS) technology to optimize planning, monitoring asset utilization, and administrative tasks.
  • Process monitoring involves applying digital technologies to commercial operations, planning, and support functions, emphasizing data aggregation, analytics, and network optimization. This ensures that operators and customers have real-time information about the assets and the cargo they manage.

Technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and their predictive capabilities have all, in one way or another, allowed for more efficient supply chains. Automated warehousing, real-time tracking, and supply chain visibility, including transportation assets, have become widespread in the industry. Digital ledger systems were designed with the stated goal of adding a new layer of transparency and credence between supply chain players.

B. Automation and robotics

Automation can be implemented at the level of processes, infrastructure, and mobile assets. Process automation can play a key role in the transformation of logistics service providers. For example, technological advances make it increasingly possible to dynamically integrate pricing, schedules, bookings, shipment visibility with customers, carriers, and marketplaces in real time. Rate automation and shipment visibility technology facilitate online sales. This can create new opportunities for service providers, as these decision tools enable deeper integration with carriers, further facilitating shipment and asset allocation optimization.

Asset and infrastructure automation and the use of robots are not new to the logistics industry. For example, automated stacking systems in warehouses have been in place since the early 1990s. The world’s first container terminal using automated stacking cranes and automated guided vehicles (AGV) became operational in Rotterdam in 1990. Driven by cost control (such as labor and land) and efficiency, automation in warehouses and terminals has progressed in recent years. The extent of automation ranges from remotely controlled operations under safe and efficient conditions to fully autonomous operations with limited oversight.

Since the 2010s, automation has started to move beyond the warehouse and terminal. When opting for automation in terminals or warehouses, market actors can fully control the working conditions for automated vehicles or equipment. Enclosed entities offer a controlled environment for automation that is less subject to random disruptions. However, outside these controlled environments, automated vehicles are subject to many influencing factors that cannot be controlled, such as the weather, traffic conditions, and topological conditions (turn priorities, one-ways). Moreover, using automated vehicles in the public domain (sea, land, and air) requires legislative and regulatory actions. A broad range of autonomous or remotely-controlled vehicles is being developed, from small last-mile solutions (e.g. drones) to full-sized autonomous sea-going vessels. The development and implementation of these robots will entail their own threats and opportunities that may lead to setbacks, unintended consequences, and new market opportunities.

The development of driverless trucks is ongoing. Because autonomous trucks will still be required to carry drivers (to handle exceptional conditions) for the foreseeable future, advanced levels of autonomous driving are still some time away. The immediate impact on logistics and port operations will most likely consist of increased efficiency because of assisted maneuvering, improved planning, and synchronized timing, allowing for increased terminal and truck operator efficiency. In a similar vein, drones are already being used for security surveillance and inventory checks in warehouses and some ports (such as Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Port). They could also have a role in monitoring other logistics operations and detecting problems requiring maintenance. The main barriers to using drones are regulatory, but that may be only a short-term obstacle.

The first serious initiative for a crewless ship was unveiled in 2014 by Rolls Royce. The main challenges for having crewless ships are regulatory, considering international maritime conventions have clear specifications on minimum crew requirements. Another challenge is safety concerns, especially weather, obstacles, and in-trip repair requirements. This includes the uncertainty about how such autonomous or remotely operated ships would cope with unforeseen or irregular events. The main advantages include a reduction in fuel consumption, and, therefore, emissions. Even though safety is currently considered a concern, overcoming the challenges effectively would mean that maritime safety could be improved, as most shipping accidents result from human error, often related to fatigue. The debate focuses mainly on the projected costs. One concerns reduced operational costs, where the absence of a crew can be seen as a liability in case of the need for repairs or problem-solving, resulting in higher operating costs. Another concern is reduced construction costs because crewless ships do not require crew facilities such as cabins and galleys.

C. The Internet of Things (IoT) and big data analytics

The IoT refers to a wide and increasingly large range of physical objects (“things”) connected to a network and able to send and receive data. This effectively means all such items can be tracked and that any activity such an item is engaged in, or any circumstances it is exposed to, can be monitored and measured. The IoT is a development that is rapidly taking place across all industries and throughout society. Such a network of communicating units opens up a large array of possibilities for logistics. These sensor-driven items will allow all assets, including autonomous and robotized vehicles and equipment, port equipment, and infrastructure, as well as the goods themselves, to become connected. This results in massive amounts of data being produced and made available for analysis, colloquially known as Big Data. This offers a large array of possibilities for logistics and port operators and stakeholders to optimize and automate processes and gather an ever more precise and real-time insight into their operations.

One particular field of application concerns combining AIS data with geofencing. Geofencing involves setting virtual geographical boundaries around facilities (or any feature such as a canal) which, when combined with the AIS data generated by a ship or RFID installed on containers, triggers a notification. So, a ship entering or exiting a geofenced port area triggers a notification that can be used by terminal operators and cargo owners to plan their operations and supply chains. Individual assets, such as containers, can also be tracked, including through the mobile device of a truck driver. This allows for a better visibility of maritime transport and supply chains.

To effectively and successfully implement applications built on the IoT, robust communications systems need to be in place. Ports, with containers and equipment interfering with signals, and warehouses with attenuated and scattered signals, are notoriously difficult environments. Even though many ports and warehouses have network infrastructure available, it is often not suited to IoT requirements of high bandwidth and secure protocols. The possibilities are vast, and the evolution of IoT and the use of big data create prospects for logistics to become a data-centric industry where information takes precedence in the value proposition of logistics services over the actual ability to move cargo.

D. Simulation and virtual reality

Big data applications allow logistics service providers and port operators to fully exploit the advantages of simulation software. Operations can be modeled to analyze operational flows, pinpoint possible bottlenecks, define enhancements, and simulate and assess a variety of design and throughput scenarios. This can be done for existing or newly planned facilities and networks. An additional benefit is that such simulation software can also be used to train staff in a realistic environment and allows for the simulation of a variety of events to be problem-solved.

Virtual reality (VR), defined as the expansion of physical reality by adding layers of computer-generated information to the real environment, will further support such simulations. In a logistics environment, one can envision enhanced feeds from infrastructure, equipment, automated vehicles, and various drones. It is to be envisaged that VR will have a wide field of applications ranging from operational support of how to execute specific processes to active safety or security interventions. VR allows the filtering of complex visual environments and highlights important elements such as an individual vehicle or container. Further, the generation of ‘digital twins‘ allows for an exact virtual replica of the port facility, its vehicles, and ships that can be used for operations, including ship berthing.

3. Port Community Systems and Digital Ledger Technologies

Automation relies on complex information systems supporting transactions and operations related to ports and maritime shipping. This strategy is often referred to as digitalization, for which port community systems and digital ledger technologies such as blockchains are salient examples.

Port Community Systems (PCS) are an information entity that makes available logistical information to the actors involved in port-related freight distribution, including freight forwarders that act as intermediaries for importers (consignees) or exporters (consignors), terminal operators that are the interface between the port foreland and hinterland, customs, ocean carriers, inland carriers and the port authority itself.

Blockchains are distributed electronic ledgers shared across a network of servers that records transactions in cryptographic units that are called blocks in a permanent and verifiable manner. They are often referred to as digital ledger technologies (DLT).

The digital transformation of terminals is integrated into information systems and ledger technologies, such as blockchains, that link together a wide variety of port and intermodal stakeholders such as customs, freight forwarders, and carriers. The purpose of digitalization is not necessarily to create new information systems to manage freight activities but to effectively link existing databases and management systems through a portal, particularly through the conversion of different formats and the adoption of information exchange standards.

While DLTs focus on transactions and asset tracking, PCSs focus on stakeholder interactions. Portals are particularly suitable as an interface as web access is close to ubiquitous and supported by portable devices such as smartphones. The outcome is an improvement in transactional efficiency along the logistical chain and, correspondingly, the efficiency of the regional freight distribution system. Thus, there are opportunities to improve performance (costs and reliability) that the users can use as marketing strategies. It is important to underline that digitalization can take different forms for each port region due to various physical, modal, jurisdictional, and operational characteristics. Conventionally, the transactional relations between these actors were very complex, with some being unilateral and proprietary.

Digitalization is a process that takes place sequentially. Depending on the current level of information technology usage, some steps may not be required, with the setup becoming a matter of portal development and data interoperability. Therefore, freight digitalization can be developed over three major phases:

  • Development of key channels. The first fundamental step in digitalization concerns the setting up of channels with key port users exchanging digital information they need for their operations. This included cargo manifest, customs declaration, vessel call requests, and the reporting of dangerous goods. Carriers are the main drivers in implementing digital ledger technologies because they are commonly the key support of the intermodal transport chain, which becomes a channel that can be integrated. Still, DLTs are complex to implement. In 2018, Maersk, the world’s largest shipping line, initiated the development of a blockchain platform called TradeLens in collaboration with IBM. However, even if fully operational, the system was judged not to be commercially viable and was discontinued in early 2023. A collaborative framework allowing actors to track and trade shipments, handle documentation such as bills of lading, and eventually settle transactions through letters of credit, remains a challenge.
  • Regional digital freight platforms. Once key channels have been created, then the setting up of an operational port community system becomes possible, particularly by focusing on maritime shipping and inland freight distribution information channels within an area where a port authority acts as a key driver. Additional actors are brought in, notably freight forwarders and inland transport firms, which creates a freight market. The purpose is to build a continuous information chain within the port region that includes the majority of the steps from the ship access to the port facility to the delivery of a container at an inland freight distribution center. Among the world’s major ports, different port community systems have been designed.
  • Global digital freight systems. Once digitalization has been established and has effectively been adopted by ports and cargo users, the next step is to establish additional multiplying effects and quality improvements. This implies the further promotion of automation, such as RFID usage, to favor the seamless movement of cargo and a complete digitalization of documents so that all transactions take place in a paperless environment. This also implies the diffusion of best practices with other ports (and inland ports) with their eventual integration into a wider system. This could eventually lead to a comprehensive integration of information flows along supply chains through widely available blockchains, from the factory door to the distribution center of an overseas consignee.

One of the key challenges in digitalization concerns creating a consensus among port users who are traditionally disconnected and often in competition for a market share. Since many ports already have various IT strategies, digitalization does not mean using the same template, as substantial efforts need to be made to adapt to the cultural and operational reality of the locale. The development of web-based applications and wireless networks has made digitalization, such as PCS, an operational reality. The issue is to assess the extent to which digital transformations generate added value to the port community through improvements in supply chain productivity, efficiency, and reliability. As an asset-based industry, ports remain cautious about adopting technologies, including digital means. On the positive side, once a technology has shown clear outcomes, the potential for its adoption, diffusion, and scalability is high.

4. Digitalization in Cruise Ports

Digitalization is a process that is transforming cruise ports as well. While digitalization in the maritime freight sector focuses on operations and integration between stakeholders, digitalization in the cruise industry focuses on improving customer satisfaction. The evolution of the check-in processes is an illustrative example. Guests complete their online check-in at home, which is verified by the cruise line. Passengers can then print their tickets or save them to their smartphones. Identification and ticket authentication occur at the port through check-in agents with scanning devices or self-service check-in kiosks. Cruisers receive their room key and RFID wristband and proceed to the cruise ship. The industry is considering online visa processing, but differing national regulations impede its development.

Digitalization has multiple impacts on cruise terminal operations. Ports and cruise terminal operators, or any other responsible stakeholders, might redesign the terminal as the process provides them with more flexibility due to a reduced number of check-in desks. A further redesign relates to security arrangements, with potentially more X-ray machines and security lanes required to avoid guest congestion. The technology used at the cruise terminal is also upgraded with the need to use high-speed broadband wi-fi to support a large number of mobile devices.

A further implication is less in-port shopping due to less pre-cruise shopping due to expedited ship access. Combining this with the increased amenities and shopping facilities that cruise ships offer onboard, the presence of shopping malls as cruise port selection criteria declines. Ground handlers that provide services at the cruise terminal are assigned with reduced documentation checks, and pier staff with a greater focus on customer service, guest flow planning, and transfer through manual check-in, which is required for guests who have forgotten documentation. As a mitigation strategy for digital services, a backup plan is required if the system goes down. For example, deployable check-in desks and staff on standby are essential for dealing with any unexpected event.

Cruise lines can benefit from efficient port operations, safeguarding real-time digital updates for the boarding process, and increasing comfort for guests during check-in with less paperwork and reduced shoreside staffing. Cruise passengers benefit from a seamless and simpler process, involving fewer documents, fewer queues, or even no queues, and a quicker journey to the cruise ship.

Digitalization leads to a number of additional innovations, such as the presence of holograms throughout the port directing guests to the terminal and the ship. Cruise line apps provide guests with information such as boarding procedures, onboard entertainment, luggage tracking, tour transfers, and last-minute shore excursion offers. Ground Handling Operation Support Systems are also upgraded due to digitalization. For instance, smart staffing systems facilitate scheduling, training needs, invoicing, and related operations. Another example is operation report applications, which provide reports generated after an operation which are then shared with all stakeholders to further improve future services to cruise passengers and shipping.

5. Cybersecurity and Ports

The diffusion of information technologies for communication, managerial, and operational considerations has been enduring across the maritime industry. The benefits of digitalization are far-reaching, but characteristics inherent to information technologies, such as digital network access and connectivity, have opened the door to a new range of vulnerabilities and risks. The growing level of digitization and reliance on information systems open opportunities for cyber-related disruptions at ports. Cybersecurity has wide ramifications on supply chains and has mobilized market players to increase protective and mitigating measures.

Cybersecurity is the protection of information technology systems (hardware and software) and their infrastructure from unauthorized access, misuse, and damage.

Data integrity and privacy challenges and risks have soared with the rise of digitalization, the amount of information processed and stored, and interconnected information networks. The logistics, shipping, and port industry is challenged to safeguard the data being communicated across players since data sharing is at the core of digitalization. Failure to protect data hampers the digital revolution as this represents a risk not only for the end customers but also for the suppliers. There are three main dimensions of data cybersecurity:

  • Confidentiality. Information technologies, including the data they contain, should be accessible only to authorized personnel. There are different layers to confidentiality, ranging from public access (such as a company informational web page) to restricted information (such as financial accounts) only available to key employees in upper management.
  • Integrity. The information stored and distributed through information systems must be protected from any unauthorized modification or deletion. This implies data version monitoring and backup systems allowing the information to be reverted.
  • Availability. The information must be made available to its users at the moment they need to access it. Telecommunication systems, such as Wi-Fi, can be compromised and disrupted, impairing operations. Network redundancy allows for mitigating potential disruptions.

If information confidentiality, integrity, and availability are secured against cyberattacks, a level of cyber resilience can be achieved. Ports and the maritime industry are being increasingly targeted, with cyberattack growth rates in triple digits since 2017. The causes of cybersecurity breaches can be intentional or unintentional, such as an employee error (losing a laptop or a storage device that can be retrieved by others). The consequences are multidimensional, ranging from data theft to operational disruptions that impact carriers and cargo owners. The cyber resilience of a number of ports is perceived to be in question for three main reasons:

  • Labor and skill issues. The port and maritime industries are competing for IT talent with other industries. Since this sector is less known than other high-visibility sectors, such as finance, recruitment is more challenging. Further, as port terminals are converting to digital technologies, the operational and managerial workforce needs to be trained with new sets of skills.
  • Software development. Several information technologies in the port and maritime sector rely on software and technologies that can be considered “legacy” and not designed in circumstances where cybersecurity is an issue. Some terminals use in-house software that is particularly prone to vulnerabilities. Further, software development can be undertaken by third parties, which can be subject to risks such as back-doors.
  • Terminal infrastructure. A port terminal, particularly a container terminal, is composed of a multiplicity of information technologies, automated assets, and telecommunication networks that each represent a potential point of entry for a cyberattack. Terminal infrastructure, including ship-to-shore cranes, gantries, and even trucks, rely on software to operate. Commonly, terminal equipment is manufactured by a foreign entity to the terminal operator, and the software component is also part of the equipment. So, the purchase and installation of terminal equipment can represent a cybersecurity risk.

In recent years, several market players have been confronted with large-scale cyberattacks. For example, in 2017, a ransomware cyber-attack infected Maersk Line and its sister terminal company, APM Terminals. In the same year, the “WannaCry” ransomware attack caused gridlock at FedEx, a major logistics services provider, as the contents of thousands of its networked computers were encrypted. In 2020, the Port of Shahid Rajaee (Iran) was the victim of a cyberattack that resulted in the shutdown of the computer infrastructure controlling cargo, vessels, and vehicle movements in the port. Cybersecurity issues have become central to the resilience of contemporary ports as they represent an entirely new set of risks.

Related Topics


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