With 95% of all imports and exports transported by sea, the UK’s ports are essential to its economy. But with rising energy prices, supply chain pressures, and a looming climate crisis, there’s a growing need for ports to be more efficient, running at lower costs and with as little carbon footprint as possible.

Recent technological developments in 5G, local networks, and IoT have seen the introduction of smart ports. By tracking the movements of cranes, crates, transport equipment, and people in near real-time, a port’s operators and the various companies that operate in it can enjoy the benefits of more informed, data-led decisions, and better manage their resources.

However, many of the UK’s ports are often disjointed. Given the pressure for ports to modernise and move on from manual legacy solutions, it’s vital that the different elements which make up the port ecosystem are brought together to cooperate in running more efficient and sustainable smart ports

Data-based decisions

In any port there’ll be a large amount of traffic and people, all belonging to different companies and carrying out a range of different activities. But, without understanding what’s happening where, it’s impossible to make truly informed decisions about those activities. The data needed to inform those decisions comes in various forms and can be collected in a number of ways.

Sensors can be used to monitor traffic volume or address safety considerations, for example, while images can be used to make decisions around an asset’s condition. In Belfast, for instance, we’re exploring the addition of smart sensors and IoT technology to hoppers enables them to be operated remotely, creating a safer environment for workers.

More widely, IoT and computer vision technology are increasingly used to enable predictive maintenance. Sensors and video data are used to monitor the health of essential equipment, and engineers receive an alert should a machine start to act beyond its recommended parameters. This allows them to take it offline for repair and avoid costly maintenance further down the line.

As well as avoiding unexpected stoppages and breakdowns, this proactive approach also extends the useful life of an asset.

What’s more, with the ability to access vital data via a mobile device, engineers can make decisions around an asset’s performance significantly more quickly than they would by using a desk-based terminal located far from the asset itself. Given that the transportation sector historically works within thin margins, achieving such efficiency is key.

A desire to change

Encouragingly, there has been a growing willingness from port operators to embrace digitalisation. Initiatives include the Port of Ipswich’s deployment of IoT sensors to monitor critical assets, while Southampton has been investigating the safety benefits of innovative drone technology. BT has also been working with Belfast and the Port of Tyne to explore the advantages a 5G private network could offer, including its use as an innovation test bed for other companies to trial their services over.

Such initiatives are indicative of a real desire to change and embrace digitalisation. It’s even on the roadmap of some of the country’s smaller ports. Recent investment by the government in smart maritime skills and clean technologies for ports are certainly a contributing factor to this increased engagement. Notably, the government’s dedication is evident through initiatives such as the [clean maritime demonstration competition CMDC, which offers £60 million of investment for technology and system demonstrations in clean maritime solutions.

Addressing issues around sustainability is important in the development of smart ports and can have a considerable impact on a port operator’s bottom line. Forklifts and trucks alone can consume 15,000 gallons of fuel a year. Environmental impact aside, that can be expensive. Embracing new technologies to more closely monitor assets such as these and then implementing small changes on an annual basis can make a big difference over time.

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Challenges and considerations

There are still challenges to be addressed in making the smart port concept a reality. The multiple elements that make up a port – the ferry operators, shipping companies, freight forwarders, and stevedore operators – can be independently-run, and often in competition with each other.

Many are still recovering from the impact of COVID-19 and will have been affected by the supply chain issues resulting from the war in Ukraine. They need to be persuaded what a smart port will mean for them; and how it will improve their business. This must therefore be taken into consideration when overhauling a port’s operations. 

It’s important to recognise that existing processes aren’t necessarily bad. Although many of the processes in a port environment won’t be digital, they work. They’ve evolved over time and the people that engage in them have experience and expertise – they’re good at what they do. But they may just be too labour-intensive, and that can result in a lack of efficiency. 

Moving from a manual, people-intensive process to a digitised approach is a journey. An incremental change strategy needs to be put in place which aligns with the values and objectives of the businesses concerned.  Communicating those changes is crucial, as is explaining the reasons behind them and the benefits you’d expect to see as a result. 

And you must bring the right people with you on the transformation journey. Those who clearly see the benefits of digitalisation will happily follow you.  It’s therefore essential to focus on those who may see any change as a threat to their job and demonstrate that the opposite will only improve their working lives. 

Smart ports represent a host of efficiency, cost saving, and sustainability benefits to every business that works in the supply chain ecosystem – particularly in today’s challenging economic conditions. Thanks to advances in IoT and network technology, unlocking these benefits is now more achievable than ever before. But the legacy of port operations means this won’t happen overnight. Careful consideration, change management, and communication are required to transform the UK’s ports for the overall betterment of the country’s economy.

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Enable your business with 5G

We are among only a few operators in the UK able to provide an integrated smart network combining 5G, fixed, wi-fi and mobile technology – which means we can get you ready for what happens next.

Enable your business with 5G

We are among only a few operators in the UK able to provide an integrated smart network combining 5G, fixed, wi-fi and mobile technology – which means we can get you ready for what happens next.

Smiling businessman in a suit

Enable your business with 5G

We are among only a few operators in the UK able to provide an integrated smart network combining 5G, fixed, wi-fi and mobile technology – which means we can get you ready for what happens next.

Smiling businessman in a suit

Enable your business with 5G

We are among only a few operators in the UK able to provide an integrated smart network combining 5G, fixed, wi-fi and mobile technology – which means we can get you ready for what happens next.

Smiling businessman in a suit