In occasion of Port Technology International’s Container Terminal Automation Conference (CTAC) 2023 in Hamburg, we had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with our partners from INFORM. Alex Van Winckel, INFORM’s Director of Strategic Relations and Sales, discussed the event’s importance, lessons learned, and future prospects.
Why has INFORM chosen to partner once again on the CTAC events?
For us at INFORM, it is crucial to share information, come together to think innovatively, and to discuss the learnings of the previous year in order to move the industry collectively forward. Sharing information is much easier when we all come together and connect in person. I guess the long period of online events during COVID-19 taught us that connecting in person enriches and deepens professional connections in a way that isn’t possible when you’re just online. With the help of these connections, it is possible to open new opportunities through focused networking. CTAC in London in 2022 and in Hamburg this year has reinforced these beliefs having had a very successful event.
What did INFORM learn from CTAC 2023 in Hamburg?
The largest takeaway from CTAC 2023 in Hamburg was seeing the successful first implementations of the TIC 4.0 standard. As an active TIC 4.0 member, it is rewarding to see that the work the industry is putting in to develop a data standard is going to good use. I look forward to continuing to see updates here as the years unfold.
Further, there were several nice case studies for a diverse range of automation projects. They featured different approaches and plans by terminal operators. Even after two decades, it is always interesting to see that the topic of automation is continuously evolving. A big takeaway here is that some terminal operators are now seeing themselves as tech companies as opposed to pure operators.
What did INFORM learn from CTAC 2022 in London?
COVID-19 has reinforced the need for automation not just as a means to drive efficiency, but also to minimise the risk to human “essential workers.” Throughout 2020/2021 we all witnessed significant supply chain disruptions – from toilet paper to timber, the supply chain was strained.
While automation has been around for nearly three decades, its adoption rate is still low. This meant that the humans driving operations at terminals across the globe were deemed essential workers and were required to go to work. Now, the human factor was not the only issue to consider here, but it was a primary driver to supply chain stress. Lockdowns, staff shortages from illness and fear, border closures (not to trucks, but to humans) all played their part. We learned that the local grocery store was never more than 48 hours away from being empty and there are plenty of Hollywood movies that show us what would happen if the shops became empty. Automation across the supply chain is a solution that would significantly reduce the stress that we felt throughout COVID-19.
Another takeaway from CTAC 2022 was that we’re making great progress on standards. Figuratively speaking, we’ve learnt to crawl in the field of data standards. INFORM is a member of TIC 4.0, and I can confidently say we’re moving from a crawling pace to a walking pace this year. As the expression goes, crawl, walk, run. The pace at which we’re moving standards forward is only going to get quicker into the future.
What was INFORM’s greatest success of 2022?
We are very excited to secure our newest customer PSA Antwerp. While I can’t share many details about what we’re doing with PSA now, I can ensure you that we’re looking to apply our rich industry knowledge and depth of experience in automation and optimisation to help them realise their future operational vision. Another success was the funding we’ve received from the German government, as part of a consortium of partners, for the continued development of our Train Load Optimizer (TLO) solution. This programme, called KIBA, is a project where we are working together with terminal operators, other vendors, and universities to explore and develop a solution towards driving efficiency across the German intermodal rail network.
Could you give us some examples of INFORM working with terminals and improving them?
I want to take you back to our co-presentation with HHLA’s CTB from CTAC 2022. We’ve established a rich history of working with HHLA, at both their CTA and CTB terminals. Some two decades ago, we pioneered many of the optimisation modules we actively provide to the industry today. Over this nearly 20-year period of time, we’ve worked with them to experiment, learn, and refine our optimisation algorithms. Most recently, we deployed our machine learning (ML) algorithm/module to improve outbound mode of transport and dwell time predictions that has resulted in significant operational improvements at the CTB terminal.
Last year we conducted a range of assessments to further apply our machine learning module into other industries. We’ve found that we can improve dwell time predictions in intermodal terminals by as much as 30 per cent. We expect this would result in a further 10 per cent reduction in costly rehandles allowing the often smaller, more easily congested intermodal terminals to operate more efficiently and drive more volume through the existing hinterland terminal network.
How does INFORM assess the automation landscape moving through 2023?
At INFORM, we’re seeing a progressive adoption of automation from maritime into downstream supply chain processes. Intermodal and distribution centres are eyeing off how to adopt automation and exploring the learnings from the maritime industry. We talked last year about the technology gap between highly efficient maritime terminals and the significantly less evolved intermodal terminals in the hinterland. As noted last year, this is a real risk. We’ve seen in the US over 2021/2022 multiple maritime terminals throttling container volumes moving inland as the inland network couldn’t keep pace. This was also compounded by intermodal terminals not being able to move containers out to congested DCs. Investments in automation technology (both hardware and crucially, software too) will have a real impact on creating flow on efficiencies that maritime terminals are realising from automation.
We’re also seeing terminal operators who are heavily dependent on unionise labour looking for software to help them begin to automate their processes. This is a crucial step for two reasons. One, it allows the terminal to take first steps on the path towards automation and to start realising benefits such as improved operational efficiency through “next best move” optimisation. This will also allow terminals that aren’t heavily dependent on unionised labour to implement automation in a proven stepwise approach – think driver in crane cab, then remote operators, then final drop remote operation, then full-automation – as opposed to the big-bang approach that is highly risky.
Equally important, it also allows these terminals to begin collecting more uniform data that will allow them to move from reactive operations towards operations that leverage data-driven decision-making to be more proactive. It is the start of a paradigm shift in how terminals operate.
How has INFORM changed as a company over time?
That’s an interesting question. INFORM is seen as an innovative leader in the industry and we are proud of that. We’re often seen as pushing the boundary of what’s possible. I would say our Operations Research (OR) based algorithms have served the industry well for over 25 years now. Over the years the evolution of our AI based approaches have allowed us to enrich our OR approach. We call this “Hybrid AI.”
We could also talk about shifting from traditional “waterfall” software development to now being “agile.” That means that we moved from isolated phases that merge into each other to an agile development where we can let multiple phases run in parallel. This gives us more flexibility, and this is extremely important in a rapid evolving and moving world. Historically, we might have several years to develop a piece of software to a customer’s requirements and those requirements would not have changed much. Today, two years is a lifetime, and those requirements might have shifted dramatically.
Speaking of fast, we can also focus on our shift from being focused on supplying complex all-encompassing software tools to our current, nimble add-on optimisation approach. This change means that terminal operators no longer need to throw out their existing investments in IT, primarily TOS, but rather build intelligence onto those investments. This approach comes with distinct advantages.
Firstly, lower, compartmentalised risk – you only evolve areas of operation where you have challenges to resolve. Second, significantly lower costs – this logically leads to very short ROI timeframes. Three, condensed deployment timelines – you start solving operational challenges faster and speed here also means you can iterate on solutions much quicker.
What does success look like for INFORM by the end of this year?
We have several go-lives planned with our customers this year. We’re looking forward to taking DP World live in Vancouver with our Rail Scheduler, Train Load Optimizer, and Vehicle Optimizer. Dinges Logistics in Germany will be going live with our Intermodal TOS. And Norfolk Southern will be taking our Syncrotess Optimization Plus solution, which features our Yard Optimizer – for stacked yard management – and Crane Optimizer live at two US based intermodal terminals. We’ll also see phased deployments with our project with PSA Antwerp continue.
That said, over the years we have managed to build out a network of professional connections in the industry and we have very good and strong relations. Through events like CTAC Europe and the much-anticipated CTAC North America, we’re looking to strengthen these relationships and build new ones. It is also important to note that we see our customers as not only customers, but rather as partners and that’s something that I would call a major ongoing success.