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“Even when sudden changes or additions needed to be made, the configurability of the system allowed us to quickly evolve the technology”

Stuart Wallace, Chief Operating Officer, Forth Ports

Around 90% of global trade is transported by sea, making the operational health of ports a critical link in the world economy. In the UK, the role of ports was thrown into sharp relief as they became even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic to the supply of essentials such as food and medicine, despite the challenging circumstances of lockdown.

These additional pressures have been particularly intense for UK ports, who were preparing for Brexit at the same time as keeping essential goods flowing in an ever-changing situation. This was the context for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) as it prepared to deploy TCS DynaPORTTM, its one-stop digital terminal operating solution, at one of London’s newest ports – Tilbury2.

The port is the one of the largest-ever investments by the Forth Ports Group, a leading UK port operator. The company has a longstanding relationship with TCS, its preferred technology partner, across almost two decades. But this partnership was taken to a new level over the last year.

“On top of the usual challenges involved with a project of this scale, the pandemic put pressure on us to find flexible ways to work to keep the port opening on schedule,” reflects Stuart Wallace, COO at Forth Ports, operator of Tilbury2.

The Tilbury2 challenge

Sridharan Narayanan, Head of TCS’ Ports and Cargo Business Unit, says his team had to move fast: “When lockdown happened, we had to move rapidly to a virtual installation using TCS’ Secure Borderless Workspaces™ (SBWS™), solving a lot of problems across time zones.”

DynaPORT streamlines order-to-invoice processes and supports multimodal and multipurpose requirements in more than 80 terminals around the world. But at Tilbury2, Narayanan’s team needed a different approach.

“We knew we had to increase levels of testing and communication,” says Narayanan. “So we told our partners, ‘these are the new features you’ll be getting today, and this is how you’ll get them.’

“We also worked closely with Forth Ports to understand the impacts of Brexit. As a result, we changed the coding of DynaPORT and did a lot more testing and implementations. We also designed the system in such a way that subsequent changes could be made and tested quickly.”

The system will also handle much of the additional paperwork and communications with customs.

Global bottlenecks

A central feature of DynaPORT is increased automation and optimization of operations for reducing turnaround times of vessels and trucks so that containers and trailers can be on major road networks, bound for their destinations within an hour.

The pandemic has strengthened the case for digitalization and eliminating paperwork in ports, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. “Accepting digital copies instead of paper originals, pre-arrival processing, electronic payments and customs automation all help speed up international trade,” it argues.

The need for speed and efficiency is particularly pronounced because of the broader economic and technological challenges facing the maritime transport sector.

“While the number of port calls fell in 2020 the size of the ships has actually increased,” explains Narayanan. “So, while there are fewer vessels there are actually greater volumes per call, increasing complexity.”

At the same time, the pandemic has highlighted the problem of systems that rely on workers being physically present. “Traditionally ports have been less suited to remote operations – they have been more like factory floors,” says Narayanan. But this picture is evolving.

Efficient and sustainable

From the time you get a customer order, right through to the invoice, the DynaPORT solution handles it. The system allocates a pilot to receive the ship; the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) system knows what goods are on the vessel; it assigns the job to the optimum crane to unload them.

This increased efficiency also supports an increasingly central concern for port operators: sustainability.

“From the ship to the road, the goal is to reduce the number of moves we need to make,” explains Narayanan. Because TCS DynaPORT’s algorithms suggest the optimum route for a container, it helps reduce the carbon footprint.”

A more resilient future

In the view of Forth Ports, the project has futureproofed their investment. “The system has more than lived up to expectations,” says COO, Stuart Wallace. “We’ve

got vehicle turnaround at world-class levels and highly rated vessel performance in action within a week.”

“Even when sudden changes or additions needed to be made, the configurability of the system allowed us to quickly evolve the technology to support these changes.”

Sridharan Narayanan’s team is now looking to the future. “We expect technologies like blockchain and 5G to play crucial roles,” he forecasts. “2020 has accelerated remote operations in ports, which can only happen faster as more vehicles are automated and become connected.”

“We’re studying algorithms with our colleagues at TCS Pace Port™ to see how AI and machine learning can help us reduce turnaround times even further.”

While the pandemic has disrupted global trade, as well as livelihoods, a renewed focus on digitization in ports could ultimately make the sector better prepared for the next challenge.

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