Portwise on technological developments at terminals

In a recent interview, Dom Magli, Staff Reporter at Port Technology International – PTI, sat down with Yvo Saanen, Managing Director of Portwise. The conversation centred around global logistics, automation, and technological developments at terminals. Saanen discussed the complex relationship between technological initiatives and terminals, while emphasizing the long-term demand and solution for marine sustainability.

Firstly, introduce yourself and your company.

YS: Portwise, which was previously part of TBA group founded 27 years ago, started as a consultancy company. TBA has grown to a much larger company doing software next to the consulting part. Since 2022, the whole software part has been sold to Konecranes and Portwise has been carved out of the TBA group starting as a new venture.

We are a company of 25 people working globally, across more than 85 countries. We have worked for more than 250 terminals worldwide, doing all kinds of design process improvement, and automation, and now these days a lot of focus is on electrification making the energy transition for terminals and assisting with our capabilities.

I’ve been managing this from day one, so I’m one of the founders of TBA and one of the founders of Portwise and currently one of the two Directors of Portwise. I oversee mostly the commercial side of the business, but I’ve also been involved in many design projects across the world.

To mention a few, we are proud of several key projects, for instance, Long Beach Container Terminal, APMT Maasvlakte II, Rotterdam World Gateway, but also Qingdao Port, to name a few big sites, which have been realised based on our design capability.

One of the points where we add something special to the mix is our capability to simulate existing running terminals as well as future designs. Portwise serves 9 out of 10 of the biggest terminal operators in the world on an almost ongoing basis. I think we have one of the most reliable and most validated sets of models in this industry.

What trends do you currently see in global logistics and at container terminals specifically?

YS: Clearly one of the areas where a lot of terminal operators are concerned is achieving energy saving at their facilities with the implementation of reduction of emissions, and GHGs in the terminal environment and in the supply chain where the focus first is on green energy. I still think it’s very important to focus on using less energy. Sustainability is a trend that is getting stronger and stronger.

The second trend is the implementation of more automation technology, but also in the search of doing that in an easier and better way, standardising, using proven technology and implementing automation in a gradual way instead of a big bang type of approach.

The third trend is the focus beyond the terminal. A lot of terminal operators are acquiring assets outside their regular scope. Think of developing port-centric logistic concepts, but also intermodal sites, trucking companies, and freight forwarders to get a larger footprint around their main assets, the seaport, and to grab more control over the supply chain.

Talking about automation and technology at terminals, we often hear that automated terminals work slower than manual ones. What’s your view on this?

YS: I think it’s a misconception. I think well-designed automated terminals show that they work at higher berth occupancy, higher yard occupancy, and higher levels of equipment deployment because of the lack of the need for drivers and hence also more operating hours per year.

Some lesser-well-designed container automated container facilities deliver low performance. As they are less flexible than conventional sites, it’s also more difficult to get the performance to a higher level.

When you are in the planning process, don’t take the right things into consideration, you may end up with a facility that is not able to perform. But, if you do it properly, and I think when I look at the automated terminals that we have helped, they all come to sustainable reproducible, high-performance levels, and would typically outperform their conventional peers, especially on a yearly basis.

Based on the 27 years of experience that you have at Portwise, what’s your view on how terminals deal with technology projects?

YS: I would say it’s a complicated relationship. Terminals are full of technology and full of equipment, heavy equipment, and expensive equipment. When I look at the purchase of key cranes or yard cranes, for example, terminals are very eager to buy them.

It’s very exciting to buy that kind of equipment. When I look at another type of technology, for instance, IT technology, there’s less confidence, a lot more doubt and a lot less capability to implement it.

So, there’s a love/hate relationship with those kinds of technologies. I see a lot of technology that is searching for a problem. Rather than problem searching for a solution in technology, I see technology being pushed to find a problem to solve, which means there’s not always value in that. I think starting with looking for value and then finding the right solution is the path to take.

Secondly, when this kind of technology is acquired, we need to look at the overall life cycle. Just deploying technology in operations is not the full story. You really need to look at how to keep it up-to-date, how to maintain it, and how to calibrate it. Otherwise, very soon technology is out of date or not useful anymore.

I remember once a project that we did with a very large terminal, they had all kinds of GPS and position detection logic on their equipment. They asked us to visualise that in one overview, where all the equipment in real time is, and when we put the first visualisation live, half of the equipment was shown in the water because it was never calibrated.

They had to go back to the vendors to get it calibrated, and nobody knew how to do that. So, they implement something once and then it’s left alone. Technology requires constant attention to really remain in focus.

Finally, how do you see the future of terminals and is there something you would like to share regarding Portwise’s mission for 2024 and beyond?

YS: I think that with this urge to make terminals more sustainable there are clear objectives defined by port and terminal operators themselves, which are not easy to reach, especially the 2040 and 2050 targets to really get to net-zero terminal operations is not an easy task.

At the same time, there’s a lot of technology coming onto the market. Think of battery trucks and all kinds of battery vehicles, combined with different charging technologies, along with the potential limitation of available electricity.

A lot of ports suffer from a lack of electricity to the facilities to come up with good investments, we can provide enormous value to solid investments beyond our regular practice of terminal design and terminal automation.

That is really one of the areas where we want to expand and provide our knowledge to the market. If I zoom out a little bit, where I see the future going is continuing the operational efficiency path, especially in improving data quality.

Secondly, the integration of terminal operations in the supply chain. The role of a terminal operator is closely connected to the shipping line, but very poorly connected to the hinterland supply chain, because there’s no contractual relationship. This means truckers show up unannounced at the terminal to pick up or drop off a container, leading to very inefficient operations.

The third outlook is a better use of data. Terminals are sitting on a huge pile of data, which is largely unused, and not translated into day-to-day continuous improvement. There’s a lot of potential that is not disclosed by proper tools, but also by proper integration into daily decision making.

Lastly, there is the need to further densify terminals. Volumes keep rising globally and that will continue. But space availability is not there. There are many places where there’s a lack of space, so we need to further densify, and we can only do that by implementing more dense solutions.

Think of high bay warehouses for containers, like the BOXBAY solution, but there are various solutions in the marketplace that can be applied, and it can also be higher RTG stacking or other types of automated container stacking technologies to better use the footprint of existing terminals.

About Yvo Saanen: Yvo Saanen is one of the founders of Portwise. He is currently the Managing Director of the company, responsible for all port terminal-related initiatives worldwide, including the development and optimisation of container terminals using simulation and emulation. In this role, Saanen has worked on a variety of initiatives, including long-term development, process improvement, terminal extensions, and handling system overhaul, as well as greenfield terminal design.