Published: Aug 24, 2019

charting the course for the port of the future

NCS’s Smart Port vision is about enhancing port efficiency, productivity and customer experiences through the digital transformation of the maritime sector and the development of next-generation port systems.

What is the significance of the maritime sector to Singapore?

Seaborne trade makes up over 90 percent of world trade, and this dominance is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. This has significant implications for Singapore as we play a key role in the sea transport ecosystem.

Our strategic location along one of the world’s busiest international shipping waterways has contributed to our status as a global hub port. We are one of the busiest ports and transhipment hubs in the world and a leading international maritime centre. We offer reliable and efficient cargo handling and are the top bunkering port in the world. We also provide a wide range of essential marine services including pilotage, towage, freshwater supply, ship supplies, and ship repairs and maintenance services. The maritime sector is thus a key pillar of Singapore's economy, contributing 6% to 7% of our GDP and employing more than 170,000 people.

What are some of the developments that will impact port operators in the coming years?

Vessels are getting bigger. Today, we have 20,000 TEU carriers which are about 400 metres in length, so terminal ports around the world will have to ensure that their infrastructure is able to cater to these megaships. At the same time, there is pressure on ports and terminal operators to provide the same level of efficiency and to turn ships around in the same period of time, despite much higher volumes of cargo.

In Singapore, operations are further complicated by the fact that we are a transhipment hub. Unlike gateway hubs where the cargo going through is earmarked either for import or export, a large proportion of cargo in a transhipment hub does not go out of the port at all. In Singapore, 85 percent of the cargo is reloaded into smaller vessels for distribution to the region.

All these require an effective response to ensure that space, equipment, labour, technology and port services are optimised to cater to the next generation of vessels and the complex operations of a transhipment hub.

Another significant development is the emergence of mega shipping alliances. This has changed the dynamics of the relationship between container shipping lines and ports, with shipping lines gaining more influence and bargaining power¹.

This is taking place in a climate of heightened competition in the port-operating landscape. Regional hub ports in Malaysia and Indonesia are taking steps to upgrade and build new facilities and improve their service levels to ensure that they continue to be relevant and competitive. Further afield, the ports of Shanghai, Busan, Rotterdam and Hamburg are also expanding their capacity with new facilities in a bid to increase their container throughput.

All these steps are being taken to attract the mega alliances, especially in the container market segment where their decisions regarding capacity deployed, ports of call and network structure can determine the fate of a container port terminal. When an alliance makes a decision on their hub port, they could bring with them five or six shipping operators, which will contribute a significant percentage to container throughput.

How are port operators responding to operational challenges?

In the face of growing operational pressures and heightened competition, port operators are turning to technology for answers. With Industry 4.0 and the ongoing digital transformation drive, container terminals are investing in higher levels of automation to improve productivity and efficiency and secure a competitive advantage. Key technologies that come into play include the Internet of Things, advanced analytics, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), unmanned vehicles and equipment, and blockchain. For example, in transhipment operations, it is that the unloading of cargo follows a sequence that ensures optimal efficiency when it has to be reloaded onto another vessel.

Given the volume of transhipment cargo handled by Singapore, the planning is too complex to be carried out manually, so terminal operators are applying intelligent algorithms to ensure that optimal efficiency is achieved. Going forward, AI and machine learning will embed themselves into planning tools to help continuously improve these algorithms.

There is also an increase in the use of smart sensors, which will help pave the way for fully-automated operations. For example, accurate smart cameras sensors placed on top of a crane can help pinpoint the exact location of a container that is to be picked up. With minimal human intervention, the sensor-guided crane can be positioned to pick up the cargo, instead of having a human operator to manipulate the crane.

There is, however, still some way to go before full automation can be achieved in terminal operations. For yard cranes which pick up containers from trucks and put them into storage and vice versa, a high degree of automation is already possible. In ports like Shanghai and Rotterdam, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) – specially built vehicles with no drivers - are already being deployed to transfer containers from trucks to storage and vice versa. In Singapore, a trial of AGVs is currently being conducted at the Pasir Panjang terminal.

However, with the quay crane, it is still quite difficult to achieve a high level of automation. The quay crane transfers containers to or from a ship, and because there may be some movement in the water, loading or unloading operations could be delayed if the camera sensor is not accurate enough. We will thus require much more accurate sensors, combined with intelligent algorithms to do the final adjustments before this segment of terminal operations can be more highly automated.

How can we address the challenge of heightened competition and the emergence of mega-alliances? To stay ahead of the competition, it is essential for port operators to maintain and even improve on their customer service. This goes beyond ensuring operational efficiency to delivering just-in-time (JIT) arrival and services.

The idea is that when ships come to port, they should not have to wait at the anchorage and incur a cost for port use. Instead, a pilot vessel can be dispatched straight away to bring the ship directly to berth and cargo operations can commence immediately.

JIT services involve a whole spectrum of stakeholders including those involved in bunkering services, the provision of water and supplies, minor repairs, and the changing of the crew. All these activities will have to happen once the ship berths at the dock.

To achieve this, there has to be a digitalisation push involving all the different stakeholders – the terminal operator, bunker supplier, water supplier and others - so that they will be able to come together to share critical information.

For example, the creation of a digital platform such as a Port Digital Twin can help enhance situational awareness for terminal and marine operations. The digital twin will be able to predict traffic congestion hotspots within the terminal and port waters and, by applying modelling and simulation techniques, generate optimal solutions to help port operators and authorities resolve problems proactively, minimising disruption to port users.

Another technology that is being explored to enhance customer service is the use of drones. Instead of hiring a boat to deliver documents, goods, medical aids and even cash to a vessel, drones are being trialled to transport these light-weight goods from shore to ship.

A highly automated smart port with high density of connected devices, will require a high-performance wireless connectivity to connect port processes and support seamless information flow within the port ecosystem. Emerging technology such as 5G has great potential for deployment in the terminals and port waters to maximise operational efficiency and sustainability and unlock the possibilities of developing innovative port applications.

What progress are we making in creating the port of the future?

NCS’ Smart Port vision is to enhance operational efficiency, productivity, safety and security, and port connectivity through the digital transformation of the maritime sector and the development of next-generation port systems.


It is crucial for us to stay ahead of the curve. Advanced ports around the world including Hamburg, Rotterdam, Dubai and Shanghai are starting to leverage automation and digital technologies to enhance operational efficiency, productivity, and the customer experience.

Singapore is also exploring transformation opportunities as we look to our Next Generation Port 2030². Under the masterplan, container handling operations will be consolidated at a single location in Tuas, from the existing City and Pasir Panjang terminals. This will provide an opportunity for the port operator, the research and technology communities, and businesses to come together to leverage digital and automation technologies and new land-use ideas.

The first few berths of the Tuas Next Generation Port will commence operations in 2021 and the port will eventually reach a planned capacity of 65M TEUs by 2040. NCS is working closely with government agencies, technology partners and key stakeholders to prepare for this move. In co-developing concepts, building POCs and rolling out our Smart Port applications, we aim to create innovative next-generation systems that will help shape the port of the future, right here in Singapore.





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