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Smart Ports of the Future: A Digital Tomorrow

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Ports, terminals and the vessels that carry the world’s goods are critical to the global economy, as is the wave of smart technologies that allow them to answer ever-growing consumer and trade demands.

To meet current and future challenges, a handful of the world’s biggest hubs have invested heavily in smart and exponential technologies to transform themselves into ‘Smart Ports’.

It is a trend of technological innovation that has the potential to redefine cross-border trade and accelerate the seamless movement of products and, potentially, create a truly global collaborative environment.

Port Technology International’s Smart Digital Ports of the Future conference (#SDP19) will bring together the industry’s greatest minds to discuss and debate how to make Smart Ports a reality.

SDP19 will begin with a keynote speech from Allard Castelein, CEO, Port of Rotterdam. Castelein will talk about Rotterdam’s transformation into ‘the smartest port in the world’ and its plans for the future.

Following that, the C-Level Panel: Smart Digital Ports of the Future, will examine key success stories and, in doing so, look at what the future may hold for Smart Ports.

It will include Marco Neelsen, CEO, Port of Tanjung Pelepas, the fastest growing and most technologically advanced port in Asia, Kenneth Lim, CTO, MPA, Mar Chao Lopez, CCO, Port of Valencia, and Carles Rua, CIO, Port of Barcelona.

Aerial shot of Rotterdam skyline with Erasmus bridge at twilight as seen from the Euromast tower, The Netherlands

What is a Smart Port and why are they important?

In short, a ‘Smart Port’ is a port that utilizes the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), blockchain and big data to make itself more efficient and capable of handling greater volumes of goods.

The technologies that support them are digital, multi-stakeholder systems that support basic infrastructures, such as handling cargo, managing traffic, dealing with customs, maintaining health and safety standards and monitoring waster and energy use.

The smart port phenomenon is driven by three core challenges:

•             Operational excellence

•             Challenging external market

•             New business opportunities

These challenges originate from traditional means of measuring success, such as throughput and, critically, size.

One only need to look at the growth of ports in the Far East to realize the seismic shift the maritime industry has gone through in the 21st century.

China, for example, is home to six out of the ten busiest ports in the world, with Singapore and Busan also present in the list. The regional boom has been so great that even Hong Kong, once the gateway to China, has declined severely in relevance.

Ports in Europe, previously the center of global commerce, can no longer compete on size alone, which means a shift towards smarter operations is imperative.

This is because, while they are significantly smaller, European ports still have to handle greater amounts of cargo.

The global e-commerce industry increases every quarter and consequently, bigger ships must be built to accommodate the growing demand. The market, as ever, makes no allowance for those who don’t keep up.

Double exposure of stocks market chart concept with International Container Cargo ship in the ocean

Where are the world’s major success stories?

The Port of Rotterdam, for example, is aiming to be the world’s ‘smartest’ port and have worked very closely with technology giants IBM to realise its ambitions.

Rotterdam’s journey was a big talking point at Port Technology International’s Smart Ports and Supply Chain Technologies Conference last year and will be so again at SDP19.

There are other notable examples. The ports of Antwerp and Hamburg have both explored the commercial viability of smart technologies, and there are numerous other proposed and initiated ‘smart’ projects in ports and terminals across Europe and Asia.

However, seaports are still largely lagging behind rest of the transport and logistics industry when it comes to developing what Deloitte calls “insight driven solutions.”

This leaves much room for improvement, but vital changes can only come through collaboration and the sharing of ideas among ports and other supply chain stakeholders.

Industry and data analytics concept. GUI (Graphical User Interface).

What is a Smart Port Network?

The major benefit of smart port transformation is to join a wider network of hubs that are equally digitized and ambitious; in short a Smart Port Network.

The best way to begin along this road is to digitize the individual parties and organisation in a single port community.

Once that is successfully done, those said players can connect with each other to form an integrated network of systems, all of whom work in unison to exchange data and improve the efficiency of their collective operations.

This is called a Port Community System and it is key to exchanging data from point to the next, and this is the method by which the benefits of advanced technological solutions – IoT, AI, blockchain, etc – can be gained.

The next logical step, as explained by Jan Gardeitchik, the Port of Rotterdam’s Business Lead for Digital Business Solutions, when he spoke exclusively to Port Technology International in February 2019, is to connect one port community system with another.

This will form the basis of a global logistics chain, in other words a Smart Port Network, which optimizes multitude transport modes and allows all participants to benefit from lower costs and faster delivery speeds, therefore increasing competitiveness and driving further innovation.

Digital binary code concept.


As mentioned already, the industry is on the cusp of a true technological revolution and one that SDP19 will facilitate.

The event will see the world’s leading smart ports and smart port experts join in on sessions that aim to take the industry forward to a digital tomorrow.  

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