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Port managers have tried, mightily, to cope with the pandemic’s shockwaves. They have been simultaneously caught up in an avalanche of challenges: trade wars, the pandemic, port congestion and labor and shipping container shortages. Providing as they do the key infrastructure to international trade and the global economy, shipping and ports are estimated to handle more than 80% of global goods trade by volume and over 70% by value. 

International maritime trade volumes were estimated to have fallen by 4.1% in 2020, but all of the expert projections suggest that they’ll not recover at any time before the end of this year. During the pandemic, ports have had to adjust to the reality of lower volumes, worker shortages, the implementation of occupational health and safety measures for dockers and shore personnel, and the adoption of teleworking and remote operations for office workers.

The shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has left no port unaffected while exacerbating certain existing challenges. Ports have been heavily impacted by developments in the shipping sector, where some shipping lines have gone into “survival mode,” affecting container and cargo markets, with knock-on effects that may be felt for years to come. The volatility may push some ports to reassess their business models.

Although the pandemic has strengthened the case for further investment in digitalization and innovation, ports are under intense pressure to reduce costs and be more attractive to the supply chains that use their infrastructure. For example, a survey commissioned by the International Association of Ports and Harbors found that 69% of surveyed ports indicated that the majority of their investment plans had been delayed or amended.

Port officials across the country are not wallowing in the gloom and doom. They don’t have time to. No, they are looking ahead to a 2022 filled with strategies to cure (or at least address) what ails them . . . and lies ahead.

Wanted: Congestion Relief 

At Morgan Stanley’s ninth annual Laguna Conference, a virtual gathering in mid-September of transportation and logistics industry leaders, Expeditors International of Washington’s management was quoted stating that they had never before seen capacity “so scarce in both air and ocean at the same time.”

Looking to the future, Expeditors expects the environment to “remain unsettled as long as constrained capacity and other disruptions, such as port congestion, the uneven lifting of pandemic-restrictions and rising fuel costs continue to impact the movement of freight.” 

A month after that conference, a backlog of ships remained idle off the Southern California coast waiting for their turn to dock, a visual that beachgoers had taken in for the past several months before. And federal regulators at press time were investigating whether the cause of a massive, beach-clearing oil slick was caused by a container ship anchor ripping into a pipeline. 

On Oct. 12, 58 container ships were at anchor or adrift off the shoreline, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. The following day, President Joe Biden announced a deal to keep the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles open 24/7 to alleviate the severe bottlenecks. 

Providing more time for trucks to pick up and return shipping containers to improve freight movement and reduce delays through the port complex is the main strategy of the Biden plan, although exact details were still being worked out at press time. As Biden and Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka both mentioned, systemic change of such magnitude will necessitate many supply chain stakeholders to work in tandem.

“The significance of today’s announcement is the commitment from industry leaders responsible for moving goods on behalf of American consumers and businesses to open up the capacity needed to deliver,” wrote Seroka in an email, as reported by the online news site Long Beach Post. “It’s a call to action for others to follow.”

That call is certainly not being ignored by Seroka’s partner in maritime, Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero, who wrote in a statement of his own, “Before this unprecedented cargo surge began, we believed 24/7 operations were the future. After all, consumers can shop online at any time, whether it’s at 4 p.m. or 4 a.m., and 24/7 is already the standard at our partner ports in Asia. The supply chain truly never stops now.”

Indeed, a month before Biden blew into town, Total Terminals International container terminal on Pier T in Long Beach launched a pilot program that makes it easier for trucks to access the facility during the overnight hours.

“Our waterfront workforce is moving cargo as quickly as possible as we continue to collaborate with stakeholders from throughout the goods movement industry to develop solutions for our capacity challenges,” says Long Beach Harbor Commission President Steven Neal. “This cargo surge is anticipated to last well into 2022, so we need to start thinking of new ways to meet the expected growth in goods movement and rising consumer demand.”

Labor Pain Relief, Too, Please

An insatiable demand for new products is part of the blame for port congestion, which is complicated by “the overarching challenge on the labor front,” J.B. Hunt officials reported during the Laguna Conference. “There are times when certain ports or terminals close for periods of time, creating significant whipsaws in the supply chain. The sooner that cargo can get into warehouses or on the shelf, the sooner capacity is freed up, and that is a major component of what is going on in the system.”

Officials from competitor Werner Enterprises echoed that “on the supply side, the driver issue is expected to remain a problem for a while (potentially exacerbated by vaccine mandates–management estimates less than half of the broader driver population is vaccinated) and the equipment problem looks to actually be getting worse.” 

However, there is some silver lining to all the gloom and doom. An especially strong holiday shopping season to end topsy-turvy 2021 may lessen the sting of expected underperformance into at least early 2022, the Werner team reported. 

Union Pacific officials, who are also dealing with slow unloading of containers due to port and driver labor issues, noted that “while there are structural issues in that system, there is also capacity to staff up and get trucks in place. The West Coast ports are also looking to put things into place (automation, union deals, etc.) to get the network moving smoother.”

Investment in new technology seems to be the answer to everything along the supply chain these days, and the port’s portion is no exception. San Francisco tech company Vector claims its electronic bill of lading solution can get drivers in and out of facilities more quickly, to the tune of 43 minutes of drive time. 

How huge is that? Mega-huge. According to David Correll, co-director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Freight Lab, if drivers get just 12 minutes back toward driving, the “truck driver issue” could be solved.

Rebuild, Remodel, Rehabilitate, Rebound 

Biden pivoted during his 24/7 announcement to promote his landmark infrastructure bill, which includes $17 billion for port infrastructure, or the “biggest investment in our ports in our history.”

However, with Republicans balking at the bill’s $4.5 trillion cost (at this writing) and infighting among Democrats over whether to trim or not to trim the price tag to make it more palatable, the legislation remains tied up in Congress (ditto).

It’s a shame, to hear Seroka tell it. He claims West Coast ports have experienced more than a decade of underinvestment by the federal government and that had better change to address the influx/lack of movement of cargo. 

Of course, ports around the country are not waiting on the government to make major infrastructure improvements. For a deeper dive on many of these, see the story elsewhere in this issue by Mary Scott Nabers, president and CEO of Strategic Partnerships Inc. But for improvements with an eye toward sustainability, we look to the Utah Inland Port Authority (UIPA), whose board of directors recently approved the creation of a funding mechanism for six new projects that will reduce current air emissions and improve rail access for in-state businesses. 

A new transloading/cross-dock facility adjacent to the Union Pacific Intermodal Railyard will offer international and domestic cargo stakeholders a cost-effective and efficient inland alternative option by leveraging existing infrastructure and Union Pacific’s services and proximity to the rail ramp in Salt Lake City, according to the UIPA. An investment-grade business case analysis commissioned by the UIPA identified at minimum the three California port gateways—Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland—for the transloading facility to compete with for international cargo volumes.

The transload facility will be constructed with eco-friendly building materials and include sustainable construction technology, increased water and energy efficiency, reduced waste and emissions and improved indoor environmental quality, according to the UIPA.

The port authority is also seeking to acquire an easement across a privately-owned landfill to open up rail access north of Interstate 80, an existing rail spur and test track that connects to a short line, and the blessing of Salt Lake County officials to provide additional freight connectivity by building out 7200 West from State Route 201 to 700 North.

The UIPA is working with partners to develop a renewable fueling station for private and/or public use that will serve hydrogen, electric and liquid and compressed natural gas vehicles, and with the Department of Homeland Security to reassign agents to Utah for a customs bonded facility with rail access, loading docks for bonded warehousing and storage capacity.

“All these projects are designed to address gaps currently in Utah’s logistic system, which is the primary role of the port authority,” said Jack Hedge, UIPA executive director. “Providing this underlying infrastructure supports the entire ecosystem of the jurisdictional area–from a logistics standpoint, to the environment, to the community–everyone benefits.”

Let’s Be Careful Out There

The Jacksonville Port Authority (JAXPORT) also has coming improvements aimed at maintaining the Florida facility’s ranking as the 10th busiest container port in the U.S. by TEUs and among the nation’s top vehicle-handling ports. But JAXPORT also has security on its mind, as demonstrated by a new program that brings together tenants, vessel operators, rail and intermodal stakeholders, key vendors, and local public sector organizations.

To address a national priority initiative of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville Captain of the Port, JAXPORT has partnered with the nonprofit Maritime Transportation System Information Sharing and Analysis Center to form a new cybersecurity information sharing cooperative called the Northeast Florida Maritime Information Exchange (NEFL-MIX). 

“Cybersecurity is a critical part of supply chain security,” says JAXPORT CEO Eric Green. “We are thrilled to launch this important initiative to protect our maritime community from cyber threats and ensure that our port-related businesses can continue to do the important work they do to keep cargo moving and people working throughout Northeast Florida.”

JAXPORT’s involvement does not surprise Christy Coffey, vice president of Operations with for the Maritime Transportation System Information Sharing and Analysis Center. “They have been influential in the design of our Information Exchange program and an active contributor to our [center] since inception,” she says, “so it’s rewarding to see the NEFL-MIX become reality. This busy port has included a diverse group of stakeholders in their cybersecurity information exchange. We know that under JAXPORT’s thoughtful leadership, the NEFL-MIX will positively impact both cybersecurity preparedness and response.”



“Accelerating Digitalization: Critical Actions to Strengthen the Resilience of the Maritime Supply Chain,” a report that the World Bank and International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH) issued in January, describes how collaborative use of digital technology can help streamline all aspects of maritime transport, from cross-border processes and documentation to communications between ship and shore.

The joint report, with its special focus on ports, argues that a better digital collaboration between private and public entities across the maritime supply chain will result in significant efficiency gains, safer and more resilient supply chains and lower emissions.

“The report’s short and medium-term measures to accelerate digitalization have the proven potential to improve supply chain resilience and efficiency whilst addressing potential risks related to cybersecurity,” says Dr. Patrick Verhoeven, the IAPH managing director of Policy and Strategy. “However, necessary policy reform is also vital. Digitalization is not just a matter of technology but, more importantly, of change management, data collaboration and political commitment.”

How big a deal is big data? According to, the global big data and business analytics market is valued at $215.7 billion this year and will grow by more than 27% to exceed $274 billion by the end of next year.

However, recent IAPH survey revealed that only a third of more than 100 responding ports complied with a mandatory International Maritime Organization (IMO) requirement that all member countries exchange key data electronically. The main barriers to digitalization cited by the ports did not involve the technology but the legal framework within their countries or regions and the inability to persuade multiple private-public stakeholders to collaborate.

Fortunately, as you will learn if you read on, there are governments, port authorities and economic development entities that are embracing big data.

Bottlenecks along the supply chain

Among the key chokepoints in the global maritime system are some of the world’s most critical transport gateways. Consider the significance of just two of them: The Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz. As the U.S. Department of Energy’s website makes quite clear about the importance of the latter, “The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important oil transit chokepoint.”

More than 90% of the world’s total trade volume is moved by the maritime shipping industry. Every year, it transports more than $4 trillion of goods. An immense pressure is placed on shipping companies to remain on schedule, protect the cargo ship and crew, and ensure profitability. And one can’t say that it’s easy.

It is hard to visualize the world’s main shipping routes or to glimpse the industry’s complexity. As they transport goods from one continent to another, approximately 90,000 vessels cross paths.

The maritime industry involves an intricate system of transportation. To complicate things, ports and vessels are also subject to the forces of nature, which are becoming harder and harder to predict. Thus, shipping companies must be able to adapt to changing situations and act fast.

With real-time big data analytics, however, the maritime industry can better navigate these unexpected challenges.

Big data is a field that extracts and analyzes data from data sets that are too large or complex to be dealt with by traditional data-processing application software. Real-time capabilities mean that those insights are delivered immediately after collection.

How exactly does real-time big data help?

Maritime companies generate data from different sources and in several formats. Traditionally, these insights are fixed, siloed and inconsistent. Actioning this information is time-consuming and a major pain point for shipping companies. 

With big data tools, this inflow of data is collated and organized in a cloud-based system. It then analyzes and spits out the relevant data in real-time, which promotes better decision making. Nothing is left to intuition or chance—unlocking opportunities to drive greater efficiencies.

According to the recent World Bank report “Reforming and Rebuilding Lebanon’s Port Sector: Policies and Solutions for Digitalizing the Port of Beirut,” digitalization must be key in the reconstruction and modernization of the facility that was rocked by chemical explosions in August 2020.  

“Rapidly evolving technology is creating the digital ports of the future and Lebanon should not be left out,” maintains Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq regional director. “Through an all stakeholder approach, Lebanon should immediately enact special port institutional framework to reform the port sector and to launch transformation process toward a structured and systematic technological upgrade of the Port of Beirut to support Lebanon’s economic recovery.”

Efficient maritime operations and logistics

Overall operations and logistics become much more efficient with real-time data. Companies can obtain information through GPS and RFID tags to help locate containers and ships immediately. Data technology also helps synchronize communication to manage ship arrivals, berthings, and departures safely and efficiently. And in case of an emergency, non-availability of labor or terminal allocations, real-time data helps ships plan their routes and speeds accordingly.

Due to climate change, this ability to pivot has never been so relevant. Although the global maritime industry is a well-oiled machine, the ocean’s weather—currents, waves and wind—are more unpredictable than ever. Real-time data streamlines decision making and supports ad hoc navigation to ensure companies maximize returns.

After a yearlong trial period, the Greater Houston Port Bureau officially partnered in June with PortXchange Products, a Netherlands-based digital solutions provider for predictable and sustainable shipping. The five-year deal is allowing for the adoption and further development of PortXchange’s collaborative vessel and terminal planning platform.

“Digitization and data are key for the port of Houston region to increase predictability, improve efficiency and remain globally competitive,” says Capt. Bill Diehl, U.S. Coast Guard (retired), president of the Greater Houston Port Bureau. The non-profit trade organization operates the Maritime Exchange of Texas, which maintains critical vessel movement data for the Lone Star State’s deep draft ports.

The agreement came as a result of Diehl’s agency embracing “the idea that digitalization and scheduling transparency is the future of any port,” according to Sjoerd de Jager, PortXchange’s managing director, who adds, “we look forward to extending our collaboration in the Houston port community.”

Big data is helping to identify open berths at the Port of Gothenburg. In September, the largest port in Scandinavia launched Allberth, a smart device developed by Awake.AI of Finland. 

“With Allberth, we now have a berth planning tool that can make calls smarter, safer and considerably more efficient for all concerned,” says Fredrik Rauer, traffic coordinator and project leader for Berth Planner at the Gothenburg Port Authority. “And reduced emissions from the vessels are an obvious benefit in climate terms.”

External users, who are gradually being added to the system, can make their own planning decisions based on the same data. “With Allberth,” Rauer says, “we can give mooring personnel, the ship’s agent and the terminal the opportunity to act immediately on the information that we visualize in the application.” 

Fuel-efficient routing

By having access to real-time sea state observations—currents, waves and swell—vessel operators can re-route according to current ocean and weather conditions while optimizing fuel efficiency. Inefficient weather routing oftentimes leads to the increased time spent at sea, which not only disrupts and delays the supply chain but can also increase fuel burn and CO2 emissions. 

In addition to increasing voyage earnings, fuel-efficient routing also reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, supporting the latest GHG reduction strategy that the IMO developed in 2018. The initial strategy envisages that the total annual GHG emissions from international shipping should be reduced by at least 50% by 2050 compared to 2008. What does 50% look like? The IMO calculated that vessels released 1.12 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide the year before, in 2007. Emissions need to be reduced by 560 million metric tons. That’s equivalent to the emissions from 102 million cars.

One key conclusion to make about the real-world is that real-time data helps to reduce fuel costs and also helps to reduce GHG emissions.

The Port Authority of New South Wales in Australia is maneuvering very large ships safer and more efficiently thanks to OMC International’s Dynamic Under Keel Clearance (DUKC) system. The Aussie company’s technology is currently being used at the ports of Botany, Newcastle and Kembla.

The DUKC system provides tanker and deep drafter container captains “with near real-time data, taking account of a number of variables, including the height of tide, the speed of the ship, the ship’s maneuverability, tidal streams and the dynamic motions of the vessel–all essential information used by our highly trained team of marine pilots when maneuvering these vessels within port waters,” says Myron Fernandes, the port authority’s harbor master for Sydney and Botany.

Is real-time big data safe from cyber-threats? 

The convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) onboard ships—and their connection to the internet—creates an increased attack surface that requires greater cyber risk management.

On the IT side, the chances of cyberattacks can be mitigated through proper implementation of encryption techniques such as blockchain technology. From an operational standpoint, IMO maintains that effective cyber risk management should start at the senior management level—embedding a culture of cyber risk awareness into all levels and departments of an organization. 

One can read more about this in “Guidelines on Cybersecurity Onboard Ships” from BIMCO, a non-governmental organization that aims to be at the forefront of global developments in shipping. With offices in Copenhagen, Singapore, Shanghai, Athens and London, BIMCO provides expert knowledge and practical advice to members that range from small local port agents and law firms to the largest shipowners in the world.

Knowledge is power

It is possible that the maritime industry can become bigger and better—and more lucrative—while emitting less GHG emissions. By implementing real-time insights in daily operations, shipping companies are well-positioned to navigate anything that comes their way. And how this year has gone, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have an edge on the unexpected.  

As the technology evolves, an emerging group of global communications companies are competing with one another to execute on a radical mission statement: to bring connectivity to everyone, everywhere. As these technologists make progress, they enable maritime organizations to connect more efficiently with customers, facilities and systems.

One of those companies, OneWeb, has been busy building a communications network with a constellation of Low Earth Orbit satellites that provide connectivity to people around the world. OneWeb’s method for enabling Internet access for all is starting to become a reality. As a result of OneWeb’s new capacities in space, the company is getting ready to provide low-cost solutions for broadband, government and cellular backhaul. Its high speed, low latency, network will offer new affordable mobility solutions to industries that rely on global connectivity, including ports and the maritime companies that depend upon ports.

OneWeb, which is headquartered in London and has a manufacturing facility in Merritt Island, Florida, successfully commenced launches for its satellite constellation network back in February 2019. As of May of this year, 218 of a planned 648 satellites in the initial constellation had blasted off. 

Closer to Earth, the Washington State Community Economic Revitalization Board in July approved more than $15 million in grants for planning, economic development and rural broadband infrastructure construction projects, including awards of $1.7 million to the Port of Whitman County and nearly $1.6 million to the Port of Clarkston in Asotin County for high-speed internet connections. The Olympia-based board’s grants and more than $2.5 million in loans will be matched by over $7.6 million in private investment, and the resulting partner projects will create an estimated 200 jobs. 

Big data is a must-have

In today’s world, inland port facilities must view a strong digital infrastructure as “essential” as opposed to “just a value-add,” according to Marc Salotti, managing director at Tradepoint Atlantic in Baltimore, Maryland. The modern, 3,300-acre industrial site used to be known as Sparrows Point, which had been one of the world’s largest iron and steel making facilities for 125 years before closing in 2012.

“Think about the target user,” Salotti recently wrote on the Supply Chain Brain forum. “With increasing pressure on global supply chains, the rise of e-commerce, and growth of direct-to-consumer methods, companies aren’t just looking for a storage facility. They want an adaptable environment that maximizes supply-chain optionality and growth, a strong technical infrastructure, and a strategic partner to work through challenges and share innovative solutions.”

Saudi Global Ports (SGP) is incorporating smart port design to two container terminals at King Abdulaziz Port Dammam. The program includes establishing an area called “The Sandbox” to test new technologies in automation and connectivity and develop new processes that will be subsequently deployed across SGP.

“We are taking progressive steps toward transforming Dammam into a leading international container port equipped with digital and smart capabilities, and continue to contribute toward Mawani (Saudi Ports Authority) and the Kingdom’s plans for a transformational transport and logistics sector,” says SGP’s CEO Edward Tah.

The future is also now for the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, which is working with partners to design a collaborative system to manage marine vessel traffic and optimize the supply chain flow by a March 31, 2022, deadline imposed by the Canadian government, which also provided funding for an electronic conveyor system to transport bulk materials at the Port of Saguenay.

Embracing big data cannot come soon enough, according to Salotti: “If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t be complacent. We must evaluate. We must evolve. We must commit to real, systemic change in economic development and infrastructure. Then, we won’t just build a more resilient trade pipeline; we’ll create new jobs and sustain the heart of American industry.”