Analyses & Studies

EY: Is data the next port of call?

The global economy and trade flows are changing; port and terminal operators must adapt. Investment in digital infrastructure is critical.

In brief

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is driving major fluctuations in global trade volumes.
  • The pandemic has forced business leaders to urgently review how they source, make and move finished goods and raw materials.
  • Ports and terminals are only getting a fraction of the benefits that data analytics should be providing.


Maritime ports are an essential part of the infrastructure on which most global trade relies. Transport by sea isn’t the fastest way of moving goods and commodities, but it’s the cheapest. However, that advantage is not enough to secure a port’s continued success.

The demand for global movement of goods and commodities has suffered major swings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how and when it stabilizes remains to be seen. Meanwhile, demand flows are changing due to fundamental, transformational shifts in supply chains around the globe. Ports and terminal operators need to work smarter if they are to grow — or protect — their share of global trade.

Most ports have improved their physical infrastructure, often so they can accommodate increasingly large vessels. But they’ve paid less attention to their digital infrastructure.

Focused digital investment can deliver significant and immediate benefits from the quay side to the bottom line. It can optimize the management and planning of what occurs in the port waters, improving the performance of all players in the wider port ecosystem. The port can become more competitive and resilient –  better able to adapt to the changing world of trade.

Seaborne transport needs to adapt

The pandemic is having a devastating impact on the stability of global trade volumes, but is also accelerating deeper changes in the nature of globalization and structure of global supply chains.

Concerns about the negative impact of globalization and the environmental cost of moving goods and commodities over vast distances have also taken their toll.

Supply chains are under review

The pandemic has forced businesses to urgently review how they source, make and move finished goods and raw materials. They’ve seen how suddenly demand can change, and they need their supply chains to become more efficient, responsive and resilient. This is challenging for maritime transport, which is slow and inflexible, after decades of investment in increasingly larger vessels and infrastructure.




Time to think digital

The world is changing, and maritime ports need to respond. As trade networks become more disrupted, all key flows and processes in a port ecosystem will be impacted — from the arrival of vessels to the onward movement of their cargo.

This should be an opportunity for ports and terminals to win volume by making their offer more attractive. But they also risk losing customers if they don’t act fast enough. It will only get easier for companies to restructure their supply chains to cut out bottleneck ports for more efficient alternatives.

Further investment in physical infrastructure might be needed but is expensive and slow to build, providing value over years and decades, not weeks and months. Investment in digital infrastructure can achieve significant performance improvements much faster.

Finding quick wins

Most port and terminal operators have been slow to harness the power of digital. Where there has been investment, it’s limited to improving specific issues within the port or terminal. There’s little connection with third parties “outside” the port, such as trucking companies and other forms of onward transport, even though they are critical to the port’s performance.

This is a missed opportunity. Every port operates as a central part of an ecosystem, with different businesses and organizations working alongside each other. They all have a clear interest in getting the port to work optimally, but the insights and incentives that would make this happen are inadequate or absent.

A port or terminal can achieve significant performance improvements by making smarter use of data that’s already available. This includes removing delays and inefficiencies that result in lost productivity and increased costs across the port ecosystem and making far better use of existing capacity.

Better use of existing data

Most ports and terminals collect vast amounts of data about how they are performing. But it’s often not used in a way that reveals why problems are occurring, what might happen and what to do about it. And it only gives a partial picture, because it doesn’t involve everyone in the port ecosystem.

As a result, ports and terminals are only getting a fraction of the benefits that data analytics should be providing.

Here’s an example: To make sure a vessel leaves a port safely and efficiently, it’s important to know when it is expected to depart. These times are estimated and declared to the port authority. But they tend to be vague, inaccurate and subject to change until close to eventual departure.

The effect is that downstream activities such as towage, pilotage and lock operations are not as efficient as they should be. People and assets sit around waiting. If a tide is missed, delays can run into many hours, creating additional cost and lost productivity.

Machine learning technologies can make use of the data from individual vessels to understand how they have behaved historically and how they are likely to behave in a given situation. These insights can improve departure time accuracy by as much as 20%, allowing port employees to plan schedules that use resources more efficiently. In ports we’ve worked with, the value created can easily pass €10m annually.

Modeling with a digital twin

Here’s another example: In many ports, primary seagoing vessels need to share space with river barges. Their terminal movements are not well-coordinated, causing congestion at port terminals. Where a barge doesn’t have space to move in and pick up or drop off cargo, scheduling is impacted, which leads to further congestion.

By analyzing data about the overall quay length available to vessels and barges in port terminals, a terminal operator can pinpoint levels of congestion. Detailed metrics for each barge can highlight specifically where delays are occurring. This helps port employees identify what’s causing congestion when and where, and take remedial action.

When these advanced modeling techniques are combined with digital twin capabilities — a virtual simulation model of the port ecosystem — it’s quick and easy to understand how individual terminals perform in terms of congestion and berth space capacity.

The port can determine the optimal schedule for moving barges between terminals, for example, which further reduces congestion, delay hours and the risk of extra cost.

By running predictive simulations on the digital twin, the port can find ways of further optimizing the ecosystem, avoiding delays and making best use of the available capacity.

Thriving beyond the crisis

Every port authority and terminal operator faces two challenges: How do we navigate the uncertainty created by a pandemic? And how do we position ourselves to thrive in a future where trade will be very different?

Investment in digital capabilities, especially data analytics and digital twinning, will help them respond to both challenges:

1. They can optimize performance now

This cuts two ways. They can save time and cost by working more efficiently and using fewer resources; they can grow revenue and productivity by freeing resources and creating capacity.

2. They can respond better to whatever comes next

Digital investment will enable ports and terminals to play a pivotal role in the smart, digital trade ecosystems that will shape global trade into the future.

Organizations who recognize the power of their data and invest in how to best utilize it will be able to plan better for an ever-changing future.



This article was first published by Wouter van Groenestijn, EY Singapore Associate Partner, Strategy and Transactions. 


Photo by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash


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