Can data crunching eliminate 16-hour wait time for breakbulk ships?

Can data crunching eliminate 16-hour wait time for breakbulk ships?

“The best fuel for the environment is the fuel that isn’t burned,” says Nicolas Maes, Head of Product & IT, in conversation with Project Cargo Journal.

Shipping is a sector that is very susceptible to disruptions. Whether it’s congestion, strikes, rerouting or breakdowns, there are many events that affect the planning of a cargo shipment. Furthermore, the shipping sector is a very fragmented one. A single cargo shipment involves operational and administrative processes divided over many actors.

This article was published on Project Cargo Journal

Those disruptions have a direct impact on reliability. They lead to miscommunication, delays and waiting times. In an ever more competitive market, and with new regulations coming into place to speed up decarbonisation, reliability should be top priority.

Looking at liquid bulk shipping specifically, known for its complex port call process, in the Port of Antwerp alone, on average, 50 per cent of a tanker’s port call duration is waiting time. But actually, most of this waiting time could have been predicted, allowing actors to take measures limiting disruptions. Good information allows actors to make better decisions and streamlines communication.

In breakbulk shipping, delays also aren’t uncommon. Most breakbulk ships must anchor before they can enter the port. The average waiting time in Antwerp is 12-16 hours. Optimising sailing speeds could mean less wait time, but also reducing the speed from 16 to 12 knots leads to a 50 per cent drop in fuel consumption, and subsequently emissions.

The port’s broader community also suffers from unreliable information. Service providers and logistics companies are often in the dark about the exact arrival time of a ship at berth. This pressures them to make decisions about timing of crew scheduling, deliveries and other operations that are not always accurate. During a study, Royal Dirkzwager calculated that average deviations in the estimated arrival time of ships that are used by logistics companies and service providers easily exceed 40 to 80 hours. Imagine trying to make a rigid planning a few days in advance.

Speaking to Project Cargo Journal, Maes noted that optimisation is not possible with only AIS data but deep integration with the port processes as well, something which Royal Dirkzwager already has in a number of North European ports, enabling it to provide accurate information to both the nautical side and the port side of the supply chain.

“We were not happy with just plain AIS data,” says Maes. “We have looked at the way we can use the information from the port community, the vessel planning data, in order to provide the most accurate information to both ends.”

The prediction game

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) provides real-time ship positioning data, a tracking system, that in Maes’ opinion is flawed due to the nature of information available. “It is very hard to predict based on the AIS data alone,” he says. “If a vessel is heading to the Port of Rotterdam, stops and drops anchor outside of the port, the AIS data does not show for how long the vessel will stay there, before heading to its berth.”

This makes it hard to make plans for stakeholders when it comes to mobilising crews and equipment needed to unload a vessel. This can pose significant challenges to the multipurpose and heavy-lift sectors as time is required for mobilisation of said crews and equipment, and any delays with both having to wait before they can complete their job, mean more money spent.

“We are, however, connected with the port planning system, which allows us to see the exact terminal and berth the vessel is supposed to head to, and based on that information we can predict when the specific berth will be free,’ Maes said.

This means that dock workers can be at the berth just in time to unload and load the vessel, without having to wait on idle.

With the current data Royal Dirkzwager operates with, seven days prior to the arrival of a vessel, it can predict the estimated berthing time with an 8 hour deviation. Compared to the traditional practice of back and forth phone communication, which has a deviation between 40 and 80 hours, this already is a major change.

This means that operations at the terminal can be planned on the correct day at least. Furthermore, according to Maes, with the integration of more ports into Royal Dirkzwager’s pool, the deviation of eight hours, seven days in advance, could be brought down to four hours, meaning planning could be done for the exact part of the day.

“This significantly helps all the links of the supply chain, as you can plan for your crew, trucks, barges or heavy lift equipment to be at the location at the right time,” adds Maes. Adding to that, the weather data also enables planning according to cargo requirements, as certain project cargo cannot be loaded or unloaded in adverse weather conditions.

Cutting emissions with data crunching

In addition to helping the supply chain optimise its operations, in terms of unloading and loading vessels, and subsequent transport to the hinterland, Royal Dirkzwager is able to help reduce fuel consumption and emissions during sailings.

As said, the best fuel is the one that is not combusted. With the information available to Royal Dirkzwager, it is also possible to optimise sailing speeds in order to reduce the waiting times at ports.

“Data we use allows us to backtrack our calculations and instruct the vessel to optimise its speed based on the availability of the berth it is scheduled to arrive at. Nowadays, it is full speed ahead, burning fuel and emitting pollutants into the atmosphere. “If a vessel is already at berth, and we know the arriving vessel will have to wait if it continues to sail at its current speed,” Maes said.

However, there is still some way to go, and some mindset changes needed for this way of operation to take off. Currently, commercial interests outweigh any cost savings achieved through reduced fuel consumption, which is hard to ignore.