Q&A: Dr Eva Savelsberg, INFORM


In an exclusive Q&A with PTI, INFORM’s Senior Vice-President Dr Eva Savelsberg looks at the major technological trends in the maritime sector and assesses how ports and terminals can improve operations and remain competitive in the future.

Key topics up for discussion include the search for best data practices and the how to utilize smart technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as the changing face of the modern, digital workforce. 



PTI: What are the key areas where smart technologies can improve port operations?

ES: Cyber Physical Systems (CPS) of varying complexity are already a central component in most modern ports. However, poorly designed logistics processes and prohibitive data practices are preventing ports from taking full advantage of the opportunities they offer. It is no secret that terminals around the world are struggling to see good returns on their automation investments.

As well as that, technology continues to evolve and what we see today is quite different from what we saw a decade ago. In the not-too-distant future, terminals will be supported by a series of modular, niche hardware and software systems that perform specific tasks – or even a singular task – exceptionally well. Supporting this modular system model will be good data practices – e.g., data standards and open source seamless data sharing that enables a free and open exchange of information.



PTI: How will innovation in smart and exponential technology affect the adoption of data standards in ports and terminals?

ES: Good data practices are a crucial enabler of technological, service and product innovation. We’ve seen terminals around the world try and do things differently and innovate, but having to compromise because of modern technology’s limitations.



Today, prohibitive data practices are inhibiting real innovation in the ports and terminals sector and, consequently, sharing that data is not easy.   

As well as that, a lack of concise data standards and open source interfacing technology prohibits ports and terminal operators from fully benefiting from their investments. At worst, it locks them into vendors’ ecosystems and restricts their ability to adapt to an ever-uncertain future. At INFORM, we’re confident that we will see a future where data is seen as an enabler of improved performance and innovation in terminals and amongst vendors.



PTI: How can ports and container terminals make AI work for them?

ES: The onus is on the vender’s shoulders to show ports and terminal operators how AI will best work for them. We’re moving into an age where the technology concepts of AI and Machine Learning (ML) are as commonplace as the internet is today. When we think back to the early 1990s, when the internet was commercialized, companies had to find a business case on how to utilize the technology. Today, the internet is so common that we largely take it for granted – and rightly so. Over the coming years, we’ll see niche AI and ML find a commonplace within our social and organizational cultures.

AI is proving central to improving CPS – the combination and interaction between software and hardware systems. Our recent work in applying our ML into terminals’ CPS has revealed several areas where today’s AI can result in significant improvements for terminals using automated systems.

A Port Technology technical paper from INFORM looked at the relationship between Humans and Technology 

That being said, while you need to know what you’re doing with AI and ML – it isn’t rocket science. Students around the world are being taught the fundamentals of these technologies at university today – and again, rightly so.

Ports and terminals need to consider their role in shaping these technologies in our industry. In the short-term, this means that they should be pushing for good data practices, as well as looking to attract digital natives into their teams.

By 2025, millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce. Look around now, a mere 6 years out from 2025, and ports and terminal operators are still predominately staffed by baby-boomers – but there are some operators that have done more than others in trying to break this mould. How we address the millennial challenge will greatly affect how we tackle broader technological challenges, such as AI and ML in terminal operations. 


PTI: Can you give us an estimation as to when smart technologies will be widespread in ports and container terminals?

ES: How long is a piece of string? The challenge isn’t in adopting smart technologies, but rather in sharing data that underpins how these technologies work. On the whole, port and terminal operators have proven to be very open to smart technologies – but they will fail to deliver real value until we can share data between all stakeholders well and address how to manage the human displacement these technologies bring.

The situation we are in presents two real risks. Firstly, many venders are actively using prohibitive data practices to gain a competitive advantage. While this benefits venders, it also serves to constrict terminal operator’s short and long-term flexibility. Secondly, there is a real risk that smart technology investments will be viewed as a failure, when in fact it is the prohibitive data practices undermining them.

Port and terminal operators need to demand good data practices at an industry level and then, specifically, from all venders that implement solutions within their ports and terminals. Playing an active role alongside venders and academics is the first step to ensuring that ports and terminals continue to have a voice and maintain flexibility in the future. 

Furthermore, as an industry, we must innovate when meeting the challenge of adopting new smart technologies. Technology often has the side effect of displacing human workers from their traditional roles. We’ve yet to find sustainable solutions to this all-to-common challenge, yet a solution would greatly impact the pace and acceptance of smart technologies in ports and terminals. 

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Dr Eva Savelsberg, Senior Vice-President, INFORM

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