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Ports must be part of global digital network

The lines between the various segments of the shipping business are blurring and players need to rapidly adapt to stay relevant as the industry trend moves towards end-to-end solutions. Increasing digitalisation means the supply chain is not as linear as it used to be, and the port is now becoming more part of a network

The should be more co-creating and co-operating for mutual benefit while moving away from the traditional paradigm of proprietary information and systems

THE lines between the various segments of the shipping business are blurring and players need to rapidly adapt to stay relevant as the industry moves towards end-to-end solutions, according to Port of Rotterdam’s Martijn Thijsen.

Mr Thijsen, who runs the port’s digital strategy, transformation and business development, says digitalisation means the supply chain is not as linear as it used to be, and the port is now becoming more part of a network.

“We are now one of the nodes in the global network providing a key link between sea to land and the connection with the hinterland… but yet we are not commercially involved,” he told Lloyd’s List. This puts the port in a good position to be a neutral platform to act as a supply chain co-ordinator, making use of its assets and knowledge of the markets and hinterland.

Mr Thijsen said the Port of Rotterdam’s strategy is now to move towards becoming part of a network of globally connected ports.

“We are not under the illusion that we know everything,” he said. For example, the US or Singapore markets and their respective hinterlands are very different but the port wants to work with all of these to create end-to-end solutions and then build these into a global network of ports.

While the port is developing its own blockchain-based platform, Mr Thijsen also acknowledges that the realities of the business are such that a truly all-encompassing global platform will not emerge in the near future.

The reality is that an ecosystem of platforms will emerge and the emphasis should be on co-creating and co-operating to see where there is mutual benefit while moving away from the traditional paradigm of proprietary information and systems.

“Let’s grow the pie together,” he asserted and he reiterated that this can best be achieved by collaboration in an “open and respectful” way.

The key to doing this is to align on standardisation and interoperability, making use of old standards and data points, such as application programming interfaces, which are proven and based on current applications that work now, such as software as a service, as well as new technologies that may emerge such as blockchain, he noted.

Port of Rotterdam is starting along the process with its port call optimisation programme Pronto launched last year, which seeks to treat each port call as a “F1 pitstop” where all services can be pre-arranged. This has recently been backed up in March with its OnTrack application which gives information on real-time rail freight flows within the port.

Mr Thijsen hopes to export some of these to global markets. “There’s really interesting developments going on now in the Port of Rotterdam with our SaaS solutions that we would like to export to the world,” he said, emphasising the need for co-operation.

“But let’s not re-invent the wheel,” he said, calling for joint development while working on standards for this to happen.

While newer technologies such as blockchain are still nascent and many are unsure how they will be applied, Mr Thijsen is adamant that the Port of Rotterdam must digitalise so that it avoids the fate of being another Kodak or Nokia and being left behind by technology.

Elaborating, he said the motivation behind the port’s digitalisation strategy is two-fold: first, a realisation that the advance of technology is inexorable so there is a sense of urgency to be an early adopter, as well as a more practical reason to meet customers’ higher demands for efficiency.

Using these SaaS-type applications to meet these needs are so-called low hanging fruits but easily achievable and a good first step, Mr Thijsen pointed out. “But we should also look at the paradigm shifts into the future, so it’s a bit of a chessboard; it’s very exciting, very complicated and we’re all figuring it out,” he concluded.

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