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The Fourth Industrial Revolution, sometimes called Industry 4.0 or 4IR, is the fourth major industrial stage and focuses on adding to the digital revolution. These point to emerging and disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, robotics, nanotechnology, quantum computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, and 3D printing.

Thanks to 4IR, the future of seaports are undergoing bold changes – technology evolving this way means a more loop-inclined or circular approach rather than linear. According to Arik Segal, founder and CEO of socio-business communication company Conntix, 4IR allows for unique opportunities that may revolutionize people-to-people dialogue, further improving human communication and conflict resolution. What does this mean for some of the world’s largest and most important ports?

Crucial Global Ports and the Changes to Follow

Undoubtedly, the globe has become smaller and more connected, physically and otherwise, because of transportation and other pieces of technology available today. The following are just seven of the world’s largest and most important ports:

  1. Port of Shanghai (China) – Has 125 berths handling over 2,000 container ships a month, about ¼ of all of China’s outgoing shipments.
  2. Port of Singapore (Singapore) – Has 200 cranes; this shipping powerhouse has construction projects expanding its current capacity, aiming to get the port’s number one slot back.
  3. Port of Rotterdam (Holland) – Had over 12 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) as of 2015, this is the largest port in Europe based on cargo.
  4. Jebel Ali (United Arab Emirates) – Is the only non-Asian port that doesn’t belong to the top 10 ports based on size; had over 15 million TEUs in 2015, pointing to steady growth as the largest manmade port in the Middle East.
  5. Port of Los Angeles (United States of America) – Is the largest port in all of North and South America, with 8 million TEUs; has 270 deepwater berths plus 113 miles of rail as well.
  6. Port of Busan (South Korea) – Has shown continued growth, handling as many as 20 million TEUs annually.
  7. Ambarli (Turkey) – Is one of the oldest ports in maritime history; handles just over 3 million TEUs a year, the country’s largest port is vital in shipping for many centuries running.

Chris Moody, former Business Development Director at Transport Systems Catapult and currently the Science and Technology Advisor noted that current super ports still face several issues:

  • Today’s bigger container ships take longer to load and unload
  • Rigid, fixed scheduling systems cause a queue of vehicles and trucks
  • The loading, unloading, and checking of these vehicles or lorries slow the process down even more

With the rise of technology, the global market has opened opportunities for growth and positive change. Thomas Gylling, head of Global Automation Sales at Konecranes Port Cranes, explained how these investments and challenges have boldly impacted ports all over the world. “Conclusively, majority of the ports are already smart, and becoming smarter all the time,” he said. At present, there are only around 30 container terminals in the world the industry would refer to as “automated terminals,” while the rest of the approximately 2,000 other terminals run on manned equipment.

However, there are many changes to come because of updates such as the widening of the Panama canal, additional investments in parts of Europe, a major influx of investment in South East Asia especially Indonesia, and opportunities for growth in parts of the US and West Africa. In a business of this global scale, cycle time is king. Analysts observed that due to cargo increasing in amount and becoming more diverse than ever, investors are allocating larger container ships to reduce fuel consumption, subsequently reducing sailing speed. As such, marine transport is getting slower, triggering a disruptive change – stakeholders and customers now have several unmet needs that most ports around the world can no longer handle. Today, 4IR is playing a major role in changes to global ports of the future. Such an example would be proposed container ships of the future: fully automated, fast, environmentally friendly, and can carry as many as 500 TEUs but fit into smaller ports.

Automation and Robotics: 4IR in Ports

As with nearly any other industry, people expect the role of automation and robotics as one that boosts bold businesses. Equipment are often designed not just for efficiency, but also consider the cost of production and the safety of people using them.

Port automation, whether partial or full, will disrupt the industry for sure. There are certain jobs that may experience a threat, including those of skilled operators since remote operation is well on its way to becoming a standard and ergonomic means of operating.

“Working from a remote control center offers better working environment for the operators,” Gylling affirmed. “Skilled operators and people that have a wider understanding of the process will be needed even more in ports, not to mention skilled maintenance personnel.”

Another good thing about 4IR in ports is that the world needs more people with new skills in information technology (IT) as well as in analytical troubleshooting. This technological evolution in port equipment also essentially lessens the threat on onboard operators’ well beings. “As remote operation becomes more popular, the container handling equipment can be designed without considering the well-being of onboard operators,” Gylling explained.

There are more improvements for unmanned equipment to implement. There is massive potential in designing equipment that is not only faster, but also lighter to handle. Big data may also offer systems that can use intelligent algorithms and AI – technology that can predict behavior (and misbehavior) of equipment. In this case, systems can foresee possible breakdowns and downtime, preventing issues from escalating before they even begin.

Another impressive bold innovation can be seen at the Hamburg Port Authority (HPA), the second busiest container port in Europe. Their IoT projects involved major tech leaders SAP, producing smartPort Logistics which began as early as 2011. Using SAP’s HANA Cloud Platform, HPA can have a real-time connection with their various stakeholders including shippers; customs; terminals; and trucking, rail, and ocean carriers; among other businesses connected to the port. smartPort also boasts of predictive and preventive maintenance, as well as a Port Monitor system used in vessel traffic services – a traffic monitoring system akin to air traffic control.

A trend to look for is the Smart Port. Major names like Deloitte have researched well into the thought of establishing true smart ports, as driven by various challenges from the industry. “Smart ports are the only ports that will survive,” said Dr. Olaf Merk, Administrator Ports and Shipping at the International Transport Forum (ITF) and a leading author of over 50 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publications.

Only recently, the Port of Rotterdam teamed up with tech giant IBM to incorporate cloud computing, artificial intelligence, IoT sensors, and smart weather data, creating what they call a “Smart Port of the Future.” Their connected smart port initiative not only further establishes them as the largest port in Europe, but also enables them to host connected ships. They are working on a centralized dashboard software to collect and process communications data and water weather sensor data, creating a safe and efficient traffic management system. “Here in Rotterdam, we are taking action to become the smartest port in the world,” said Paul Smits, chief financial officer (CFO) of the Port of Rotterdam Authority.

Analysts believe port cities can reap even more benefits from the fourth industrial revolution than the aforementioned. For one, energy use and its sources are on the verge of a drastic change. Fossil fuels are running out, but the world’s largest ports still use oil. 4IR opens doors for new and innovative technology that can make use of alternative and renewable energy sources, making them not only more available, but also more affordable. This circles over to a positive effect on the environment as well – the solution for one industry affects countless others and has positive global effects.

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