Port of Rotterdam’s Smart Moves into Real-Time Data

On 29 October 2015, the Port of Rotterdam Authority launched a start-up accelerator programme called PortXL to entice businesses and people with innovative ideas and concepts to work their magic on the port and its related industries.

Joyce Bliek

Joyce Bliek, Program Manager,
Rotterdam Logistics Lab (RLL)

Supplementing this move aimed towards making the port one of the smartest ports in the world, was the creation of the Rotterdam Logistics Lab (RLL). Joyce Bliek, Program Manager, RLL, explained to Daniel Barnes exactly what her new role entails, and also discussed the growing number of port-related start-ups emerging in and around Rotterdam.

Joyce, please tell me about your role as Program Manager of the Rotterdam Logistics Lab.

Still part of the Port Authority, the Logistics Lab is a corporate start-up for lack of a better word. I used to be Director Container and Breakbulk in the commercial department in Port of Rotterdam and we found out in our meetings that the product of the Port of Rotterdam needed the addition of the data side of the port.

What exactly is the RLL doing to help accelerate this change? 

The RLL has been working on a number of pilot schemes. The first, Supply Chain Visibility, is a dashboard engineered for inland terminals and their shippers, providing them with real-time information about container status and estimated time of arrival. 

The second provides track and trace for trains, an application that provides real-time location and planning status of trains. It provides users with the ability to make last-minute use of remaining capacity and optimises time on the terminal tracks.

And finally, Port Call Optimisation, is a communication platform based on Avanti and Pronto standards that offers all service providers and parties involved real-time event data, resulting in faster turnaround times for vessels. 

Could you please elaborate on Pronto and Avanti?

To provide a little more detail, Port Call Optimisation consists of two programmes: Pronto and Avanti. Pronto is a social business communication platform for the port community, based on IMO standardised events. By inviting all parties to share information regarding the planning of all services related to the vessel, like pilotage, terminal operations and bunker services, Pronto helps ship agents and other operators to improve the safety and efficiency of every single service and leads to optimisation of the port call. Our pilot schemes so far have already proven to save tens of thousands of euros per port call whilst also enhancing safety and efficiency.

Avanti, the other pillar of the port stay, is a joint initiative of the International Harbour Masters’ Association, developed in cooperation with the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office. For each participating port, Avanti provides a Port Information Guide with reliable nautical information, which is kept up to date by the harbour master. Both Pronto and Avanti are based on global standards and are currently being approved by IMO. 

There is so much data to consider, and we can’t do it alone; that’s why the Port of Rotterdam now supports start-ups and partnerships to create a data sharing ecosystem.

Siebe Swart

Photo by Siebe Swart

How many people currently work for the RLL? 

The Port of Rotterdam employs approximately 1,200 people, and in the lab we are currently about 30 people. Eight are programme managers, and the others are developers that we get in for their specific expertise.

We are also working closely with PortXL to see whether we could attract start-ups to the Port to increase the opportunities that we already have here. 

Could you tell our readers more about PortXL and the success it has had to date?  

PortXL offers international port-related start-ups a chance to kick-start their ideas during an intensive three months program. 

It’s an open innovation program in which ten exclusively selected start-ups receive top-level coaching to get their companies off the ground. The selected companies get a small financial bursary to help them stay in Rotterdam, and they have access to a network of more than 150 mentors, more than 200 investors, corporate partners and sponsors. 

Our idea is that they should stay in Rotterdam, because they have found a market. After one year, they are then left to flourish with the overall aim of gaining investment. And some companies have already got investment from corporates in Rotterdam, so that is pulling them towards Rotterdam, and we as a port are benefiting from that.

I am not naïve; there’s nothing I could personally think of that hasn’t been thought of before, or that somebody else more intelligent than me can do. So a big part of my job is also trying to combine IT start-ups with the Port of Rotterdam and finding cases to work on together.

It must be quite a fast paced and evolving part of the industry? 

Yes, and it works. We have actually created a start-up office away from the port’s headquarters to create another vibe. A port is associated with a basin and quaywalls - infrastructure that has to last for 100 years. Building data products, you are looking at prototyping and minimum viable products; that’s a different ball game.  

What other areas in the Port of Rotterdam are being targeted with efficiency improvements? 

In the broadest scope, our aim has and always will be increasing throughput through the Port of Rotterdam by serving our customers’ needs. What we see more and more is that in addition to being a reliable port, you have to be an efficient port. We always were, but with the use of data products there is new room for improved efficiency.

We are also looking with other parties at sharing data via API connections; knowing when a train or a barge is coming, when your truck is arriving, if optimisation is to be met there, and how we can help our customers use idle space. For example by helping to shift inland transport by barges to make transport both cheaper and more CO² friendly. 

For us as a port authority, we are also working towards targets of converting more inland cargo to be transported via barge and train rather than trucks.

What do you consider to be the biggest challenges facing the Port of Rotterdam and RLL? 

For the Port of Rotterdam, the biggest challenge is energy transition and the slow down of container trade. It has become a low margin business, so we have to gear towards that. More than before, we are focussing on the containers regarding the efficiency 

As for the RLL, we see that our biggest hurdle is the hesitation about sharing data in the port community. I think awareness in the market has increased immensely over the first year of RLL’s existence, but answering the question of ‘What can it bring to me if I share my data?’, and how this relates to security, safety and to commercial position - that is the biggest hurdle and the biggest change that we need to bring about.

How do you predict the Port of Rotterdam and the industry in general, will change in the years to come? 

I think that we are currently frontrunners at the Port of Rotterdam and we are seeing a move more towards acting as a software company. On the one hand we are asset-based, but we will see that software, IT and data will become another part of our core business. That would probably not be as a lab status; that would be throughout the whole of the port authority. 

We also see companies like Amazon getting into logistics (Amazon China has been awarded a NVOCC licence to operate as an ocean freight forwarder in the United States). If you imagine what the budgets of the likes of Amazon would do to the logistical chain, it makes for one big show and one big change. Add to that the ongoing experimentation with self-driving vehicles and vessels being tested, we can see a lot of changes and will see many more over the next ten years.

Yes, it is about trying to get this blend between inventiveness and conservatism. Compared to telecoms and finance we are lagging behind because the shipping industry is complex; inefficiencies are many, but whole businesses are built upon inefficiencies in the logistical chain.

In the past, really savvy IT professionals, fresh from university, would never think initially ‘Ooh, let’s get into shipping!’ But what we see now is that those tech-savvy corporates, investors and developers are getting into shipping, and are bringing about change that is moving faster than ever before. So now we have started, I believe things will change rapidly.