August 29, 2019 By Ryan Boyles 4 min read

Some processes are so complex that you can’t risk failure by experimenting with a different approach. Other processes are so critical to operations that you dare not go offline to test an innovative method. And many physical processes move with such force that you cannot interrupt them to try something new. To use an old analogy, it’s tough to change the wheels on a moving train. And that can be frustrating when the new design might provide dozens of valuable benefits. Recently, the Port of Rotterdam overcame this problem of testing with the development of a digital twin.

To help Quick Bytes Live viewers learn more about it, I spoke with Louis ter Voorde of Axians. He told me about the transformation project and how digital twin technology helped his organization use test scenarios to improve its operations.

Watch the video


What is a digital twin?

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical object or system across its entire lifecycle. It uses digital tools and real-time data to virtually create, test, build and monitor a product or process – closing the feedback loop between design and operations. It’s an ingenious approach that facilitates transformation without risking operations. And it’s one that the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest and busiest port, enthusiastically embraces. The project was a collaborative effort that included Rotterdam Port Authority, Axians, Cisco, IBM® and many others.

Over 600 years of transformation

The Port of Rotterdam covers an area of over 41 square miles. It employs close to 400,000 people, and serves nearly 30,000 sea-going vessels each year. It’s an historical port that began in 1360 C.E. to serve marine traffic between the Netherlands, England and Germany. Yet despite its venerable age, in 2017 the World Economic Forum named its infrastructure the best in the world.

With innovative leadership and a desire to excel, the Port of Rotterdam has continuously adapted throughout the centuries to accommodate everything from the small sailing vessels of the middle ages to today’s massive container ships. Currently, the port authority coordinates marine traffic to over 1,000 ports worldwide and boasts throughput of over 469 million tonnes. Converting a facility of this magnitude is no small feat.

To achieve their goals making the Port of Rotterdam the best in the world, port leaders have taken a visionary, collaborative approach.  A variety of government agencies participated to develop a plan for progress. Port Vision 2030 establishes where action is needed to ensure that companies can operate optimally within the Global Hub and within Europe’s Industrial Cluster. The plan defines and measures ten success factors that are crucial to the its success.

With the help of IBM Internet of Things (IoT) technology, the Port of Rotterdam is undergoing a magnificent transformation. It’s committed to becoming the first digital port by 2030, and the smartest port in the world.

The Port of Rotterdam is committed to digitization in order to make the port, and the supply chain, more efficient.

—Paul Smits, Port of Rotterdam

How will the Port of Rotterdam transform itself?

Very cleverly using Watson IoT and artificial intelligence (AI). And with the cooperation of a worldwide ecosystem of shipping companies, technology firms, and others within their supply chain. Sensors throughout the expansive dock facility to continuously gather real-time data about air temperature, wind speed, (relative) humidity, turbidity and salinity of the water plus water flow and levels, tides and currents. The port even has “Digital Dolphins,” smart quay walls and sensor-equipped buoys.

Among the more unique and innovative aspects of the transformation is a sensor-packed experimental physical container, Container 42. This sophisticated research tool is traveling to partner facilities throughout the world to collect geophysical readings. It sends back data that is consolidated into the ever-expanding pool of information.

Rotterdam Port Container 42 travels the world to gather research

Using artificial intelligence to analyze all the data collected, it’s possible to predict more accurately what the best time is to moor and depart. This reduces waiting times and costs. For example, let’s say a vessel must first unload part of its cargo in the deeper part of the port in order to be able to continue sailing. With a digital twin of the port, it’s possible to calculate exactly how much cargo needs to be unloaded there. This allows the vessel to sail sooner and with more cargo to its final destination.

Of course, to have reliable measures of depth and draught, is very important, both for safety, and commercially. By using a digital dashboard that makes operations visible with 100% accuracy, shipping companies and the port may save up to one hour in berthing time, which can amount to about USD 80,000 in savings for ship operators, and enable more ships to pass through the port each day.

Create a sea change in your organization: digital twin technology

Real-time access to information enables the Rotterdam Port Authority to better predict visibility and water conditions. It helps lower fuel consumption rates, facilitate cost-effective per-ship payloads and ensure the safe arrival of cargo. All in all, it makes a world of difference.

So think about what it could do for you.

For more information about IBM Watson IoT and digital twin technology, visit our web page.


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