Europe’s largest shipping port wants to be the world’s smartest

"If we don’t innovate, we drown."

By | 8 minute read | November 12, 2019

The Port of Rotterdam is nearly 13,000 hectares in size.

Most sports fields are one hectare. Imagine 12,713 of them—filled with ships and quays and people—stretching 41 miles across The Netherlands’ northern coast and out into the North Sea.

The port is Europe’s largest and busiest.

Cranes and containers lock and load all hours of day and night. 150,000 vessels from all over the world pass through annually. A ship might come from China, be destined for Germany, have workers from 10 different nationalities onboard, be carrying anything from food to cars to fuel to computers and beyond.

It’s a big, busy place.

So what happens to a port in a digital age? In an age of energy transition?

If you’re the Port of Rotterdam, it means a focus on digitization and sustainability. With the partnership of IBM.

This September, our film crew traveled to Rotterdam to tell the story of the port’s ongoing digitization and sustainability work. You can watch the video below. And read—in their own words—how various team members are working to make Europe’s largest port the world’s smartest.

“Every day the tide is different. Everything is changing all the time.”

The Maritime Pilot: Martin van der Laan

Focus: safety

What’s so good about being a pilot in Rotterdam? You get to bring in the biggest ships in the world. It is 100,000 tons underneath your feet, and you get to master it.

I help captains get their ships into the port safely and swiftly. Ships arrive from all over the world. They come from New York. They come from São Paulo. They come from Singapore.

We meet the ships some 10 nautical miles outside the breakwater. Ten miles doesn’t sound far, but a seagoing vessel is, on average, doing something like 10, 15 knots (11.5 – 17 miles) per hour.

When I board, we first have a talk about the trip on hand. What are we doing? Where are we going? Together we look at the data so the captain knows where they’re going.

We started using online data a few years ago. Before, we were working with fixed data, astronomic data. We had to make a good guess, and hope our calculations were right.

Now, we use the IBM HydroMeteo dashboard. We have data about the height of tide, tidal current, salinity, visibility, wave height, wind, wind direction.

In the port of the future, we’ll share data more and more, so we can have a more steady flow of incoming and outgoing traffic. Everything will be tied together. Getting more ships in and out creates more revenue for everyone.

“Our vision is to make parts only when they’re needed.”

The RAMLAB Director: Vincent Wegener

Focus: sustainability + 3D printing

RAMLAB stands for Rotterdam Additive Manufacturing Lab. We focus on large-scale 3D printing of metal parts: propellers, hooks, impellers, parts for the chemical, oil and gas industries.

Normally when a part of this scale is made, it’s either cast or forged, which happens mostly in Asia. It takes a long time to get here. Right now, you’re moving parts all over the world, and storing them in warehouses. About 70 percent of parts are never used. They lay in a warehouse waiting to get used one day. It’s a waste of energy, resources, time.

We made a propeller together with Damen Shipyards and other partners two years ago. We showed that you can make a part within a few days. That was our first research product.

That’s what 3D printing can offer. When you need one part, you print it, instead of making a batch.

At RAMLAB, we need to guarantee the quality of our parts. We can only do that with data. We monitor the process while we’re printing.

When we’re printing, it’s basically 3D welding. You need to control your weld bit, the weld pool. When something goes wrong, you see that directly in the data.

If you print a propeller for 200 hours, you don’t want to find out afterwards that there’s something wrong.

Our welding system is connected to the IBM Cloud and all data that comes out it is stored there.

Our vision for the future is to make parts on demand as a production facility. We want to press start Friday, come back Monday, and there’s a printed part. During that time, the process is monitored by our algorithms that run on the cloud.

The idea is to reduce lead time, reduce warehousing costs, and make the part here, directly when you need it.

Our vision is to have a global network of RAMLABs where you can print the parts nearby, when and where you need them.

“The digital twin is the system of truth.”

The Digital Twin Director: Lisa Seacat DeLuca

Focus: digitization

A digital twin is a digital representation of a physical thing.

A great example of a digital twin is the relationship between an eBook and a regular paper book. The eBook is the digital twin of the physical book. But the real opportunity comes when we add IoT to the mix. By connecting the physical thing with the digital one, they can more closely represent each other. Imagine you’re reading the book and the eBook changes pages as you change pages, that’s really cool. Now imagine the other way around: you’re reading the electronic version and your physical book pages begin changing.  That can only be possible with the Internet of Things, sensors, and real-time connectivity.

With the Port of Rotterdam, there are so many different moving pieces. It’s not just a single digital twin, and the location and relationship to one another is critical. We have all this great data with IoT. With digitization, we can take that data a step further to understand how things interact with each other.

An IoT sensor is a small computer that can sense all sorts of things, similar to a human. It can see, hear, touch, feel.

There might be multiple sensors on different assets. Some assets have thousands of sensors. All these different sensors can talk to each other and give you a better picture of how the asset performs or might perform under different situations.

A digital twin is exciting because now we have all this information at our fingertips. You can start to do things like preventative maintenance. You can start pulling in AI to understand all the data from the sensors.

In fact, you can’t have AI without a digital twin because the digital twin is the system of truth. It’s the data. It’s everything you’re gathering to feed into the AI models to start getting valuable insights from that AI.

Data alone is not enough. If it’s just sitting there and you’re analyzing it months or weeks or years later, it’s not going to give you that really helpful information that you need now to better operate and manage your business.

Digital twin is not a new concept. But now with IoT, digital twins are no longer a concept of the future. We can understand what that physical thing or group of things like a massive port experiences.

“To make the right decisions, you need reliable data.”

The Internet of Things Expert: Raymond Koppe

focus: data + efficiency

If we don’t innovate, we drown. That goes for a large part of The Netherlands, because a large part of it is below sea-level. We have to manage the water.

The port has always played a role in my life. My first job was in the port. I did holiday jobs here. I had relatives working for the port.

The Port of Rotterdam is very important to The Netherlands because it’s the global hub of Europe. Everything going in and out of Europe goes through the port. That generates a lot of jobs for people in The Netherlands and it’s something we’re very proud of.

Being the smartest port means staying ahead of the competition. It also means playing a part in the energy transition.

Efficiency is very important for the port. There are situations now where ships wait for a long time before entering the port. By the time they get in, they’ve spent a lot of time waiting, they pollute, they use a lot of energy.

With more data, you can plan the ships, which means a smoother transition. You can slow down the ships so they use less fuel.

The port’s control room is similar to airport traffic control, but the port is a lot more stretched out. There’s a lot of movement going on, and it’s crucial that everything happens in a safe way. Digitization is key for the control room. The data needs to be reliable and needs to be there quick.

The HydroMeteo application collects data from 44 locations throughout the port. There are different sensors per locations. Every second, every minute, data comes in from all these different sensors in the port.

The sensors are much more reliable than cameras. They give you a value and a reference point. We also validate the data constantly coming in.

It’s crucial for pilots like Martin to have the correct information on their dashboards so that they can safely berth the ships into the port. Weather can change at any second. They need the right, accurate data at any time.

We’re using five different types of sensors throughout the port. It’s the foundation for what we do in the future. Think about smart quay walls. Think about digital dolphins. This opens up a lot of possibilities to measure different kinds of data in the port, and to make business decisions with that type of data.

“Data accuracy is critical in these situations.”

The Data Expert: Ron Baker

focus: data + security

This industry has been around for centuries, so it has many manual procedures.  As the pace of technology changes, we’re starting to see productivity enhancements. Ports are no exception. The faster you can get a ship in, unloaded, reloaded and back out, the better. It’s better for the environment, it’s better for cost savings, it’s more efficient. The only way to drive that efficiency is to digitize the information so you can use it to make decisions faster.

By representing the different elements in the port with a digital twin, we’ll be able to model the interactions of the real world. The digital twin will let us automate procedures and interactions between ships and the port elements.

The potential geospatial analytics here are world class. They’re not just two-dimensional. We get into the third dimension with tide depth, clearance heights, container locations, loaded ship depth, and weather at different locations. Combined with time-series sensor data, this project is unique and exciting.

I heard about a situation where a very large ship in the port was in the process of turning with three tugboats, which is typical for normal conditions. The weather changed quite quickly, in what’s called a micro-climate weather pattern. As the wind picked up, it pushed the ship out of position, blocking the channel for longer than anticipated, and disrupting the supply chain scheduling. With a smart infrastructure, the micro-climate prediction could have signaled the need for more tugboats to turn faster, and sent them much sooner.

In the Weather Company, an IBM business, this level of prediction takes in hundreds of variables from sensors that can show these changes quickly. The analytics and AI involved use over a hundred different models in combination. The faster we can regenerate those analytics with incoming data from locations like this, the quicker we can make accurate forecast predictions.

The sensors around the port are critical to this smart infrastructure. They’re usually attached to or built into different kinds of equipment and elements of the port. They sense and report different types of measurements: temperature, turbidity in the water, vibrations, pressure, movement, and so on. The sensors can be in environmentally harsh conditions, so they have to be protected and monitored for reliability of the measurements.

The port is a critical part of the global economy and represents the changes we’ve seen over the last 50 years, with products delivered from far away locations at lower cost than next door. This global supply chain has changed drastically and continues to disrupt existing participants. The ability to adapt quickly and use technology to build a smart infrastructure at the port has never been more important.

Most Popular Articles