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The ports of 2030 are going to look very different to today’s ports, says Mike van Tonder, IT and Service Line Leader for engineering consulting firm Aurecon.

He is just one of an array of speakers at this year’s Annual Maritime Summit that is due to take place at the Durban at the Maritime School of Excellence on April 3 and 4.

In keeping with the International Maritime Organisation’s theme for 2017, the theme of the summit is Connecting Ports, Ships and Communities. Technological innovation is the key to creating sustainable connections and will be a key focus during this second event, according to Thato Tsautsi, CEO of the eThekwini Maritime Cluster.

According to van Tonder, the two key technological trends heading towards 2030 are the real time tracking of containers (from loading to unloading) and the development of smart ports.

Real time tracking requires the creation of Apps that allow customers, container owners and shipping agents to follow their containers from first loading to final unloading in real time. These will enable regular updates on all the processes and clearances that the containers have to undergo along the way.

But this is part of a much bigger picture, which van Tonder believes is the most exciting - the development of Smart Ports. “This is going to create a lot of turbulence in the shipping world. Twenty years ago, you had big burly stevedores loading and unloading freight. Now you have a 23-year-old female IT graduate with fine motor skills remotely supervising driverless vehicles! This is going to cause huge disruptions to the way that ports are run,” he explains.

Existing Smart Ports, such as those in Rotterdam and Hamburg, are a collaboration between port authorities, IT engineers, and academic researchers from participating universities who look for ways to integrate systems and introduce technologies to streamline and intensify productivity and cost-effectiveness. 

GPS and cloud technology are coming into their own as management tools.

Van Tonder warns that the effect of technology of ports has become politicised due to their perceived impacts on employment. “There is this perception that robotics and smart technologies will replace workers. But I see this as just another industrial revolution. It is not going to destroy jobs, it is just going to change them into something else. Instead of a person driving a forklift, that same person will be re-trained to drive the vehicle from a static console with a joystick and a screen. The challenges, therefore, lie in interacting with unions and managing the entire employment issue.”

He adds that the biggest challenge is to inject skills development into companies at the port as quickly as possible. In a case study, Michiel Jak, port manager at Rotterdam harbour said that, nowadays, the speed of change is so fast and so complex that you really need permanent education to keep up.

Tsautsi agreed, pointing out that the obvious result will be the creation of World Port Cities. “These will be locations where port economies and the physical exchange of merchandize will be linked with urbanised service economies in the form of finance, insurance, legal and technology services,” she says.

Ports, by their nature, tend to be the most globalised of industries due to the very nature of international trade and shipping. They create a pipeline that pumps capital, skills, data, knowledge and intelligence into local port-city economies. This is a highly relevant avenue of urban growth, ultimately leading to international business service centres.

She pointed out that the Port of Durban is far advanced in this new development of the cross-over between the city and the port. The Back of Port development, the Maritime School of Excellence and the planned Durban Dig Out Port are just a few elements of the integration of city and port.

“It’s hugely exciting, mainly because a port is a closed environment where a lot of experimentation and development can take place. We can play with technologies within the closed port environment and then apply these further afield,” van Tonder concludes.


Issued by the eThekwini Municipality.