Technologically Supercharged Ports Are Defining The New Silk Road
The ports of the world are reestablishing themselves as high-tech, super-efficient cargo processing ecosystems, and nowhere is this more evident than along the emerging economic corridors of the New S
This dry port out in the middle of nowhere in Kazakhstan is running some of the most sophisticated port operations software in the world.
They’re loud, polluted, monotonous, generally ugly, and sometimes they stink. They’re ports. While the sea and dry ports of the world are definitely not very sexy places they are the arteries which keep the lifeblood of the global economy pumping, and right now they are being technologically revolutionized up and down the corridors of the New Silk Road.
New port software technologies
“First of all, you must know that our headquarters are close to Venice and I am Marco Polliti, I consider myself an heir of my ancestor Marco Polo,” the representative from DBA, an Italian port software company, said with a laugh.
I had to admit that his name was rather suiting, as he is now traveling up and down the re-emerging trade routes between China and Europe installing innovative technologies in new, state of the art ports that are arising in countries such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
Some years ago, DBA became aware of the fact that 800,000 TEU of Italy-bound cargo per year was being shipped up through the Suez Canal, ferried through Gibraltar, steamed up to Rotterdam, and then shipped overland rather than going direct to an Italian port. At first, this didn’t make any sense — why would so much cargo be intentionally sent on a wayward course, bypassing its final destination and then backtracking overland for hundreds of additional kilometers? But it didn’t take Politi long to discover the reason: the Port of Rotterdam could unload cargo from a ship in six hours while it would take Italian ports upwards of three to four days.
“Without the proper software, they’re communicating in a confused way,” Politi explained. “So we started to develop big software to digitalize the processes inside the port.”
Realizing that the issue stemmed from communications and bureaucracy, DBA developed a new type of software called Port-Line that could integrate all aspects of a port’s procedures together, digitally putting port operations, customs, freight forwarders, railways, and trucking companies together in the same room. The results were stellar, with some ports dropping their processing times from 72 to 6 hours.
Besides significantly improving processing times, DBA’s technology can also better monitor pollution, developing a system that uses sensors to detect how much each individual ship pollutes when in port.
“Shouldn't one ship that is polluting less be paying less than a ship that is polluting a lot?,” Politi posited.
DBA is also striving to take port technologies a step further, experimenting with blockchain technology for logistical processes.
“Especially in a situation like you have with the Silk Road, where you cross many countries and you shift the goods from the track to the sea or from the truck to the ship to the train and so on,” Politi explained. “You have many transfers, and all these transfers should be secured and non-alterable, which is basically blockchain.”
With the rise of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Politi decided to set off along the path of his ancient forbearer.
“Looking at the map, we realized that the logistically important position of Baku, the Caspian Sea, and also the Black Sea,” he said. “So we decided to get in contact with the port authority here in Baku.”
Politi and DBA are now responsible for installing their communications system at the New Port of Baku — an emerging new multimodal transport hub and industrial zone that is attempting to set itself up as a crossroads between Central Asia and Europe, Russia and Iran — while also trying to make inroads at the new port at Kuryk in Kazakhstan.
On the eastern side of Kazakhstan you will find another port that is breaking new technological ground. Khorgos Gateway is located in the proverbial middle of nowhere, and this is perhaps its biggest selling point: it sits right in the center of the booming of China and Europe, as well as emerging markets in Central Asia, Pakistan, India, and the Middle East -- and it is linking in with all of the above.
Just a few years ago you would have been hard-pressed to even call Khorgos a place. It could better have been described by the word “expanse” — as in, an undulating expanse of sand dunes rippling off to the base of snowcapped mountains in the distance. There was nothing out there. Fast forward three or four years, and Khorgos Gateway is one of the most technologically advanced dry ports in the world.
This port, which receives trains making the trans-Eurasian journey between China and Europe likewise aims to become a new crossroads of Eurasia, and it has decked itself out with the technology to make it a potentiality.
“Basically, we took people from the tractor and we put them on the most high-tech machines in the world,” Karl Gheysen, Khorgos Gateway’s first CEO, told me. “From day number one, our focus in Khorgos was to create the most modern and efficient dry port possible. By implementing the best available software currently on the market, we manage to meet the ever-increasing transshipment volumes and to create clear communication and data-platforms with all stakeholders … The combination of world-class hardware with the most advanced terminal operating software allows us to achieve high productivity and efficiency.”
The dry port flung out in the middle of the Eurasian steppes is using the NAVIS N4 terminal operating system — which is used by some of the most advanced seaports in the world. With this technology, Khorgos Gateway can process an entire train in 47 minutes, which is faster than more established dry ports in Europe.
In addition to this, the port developed its own traffic management system, which is a fully automated, multi-lingual RFID-based solution to organize and streamline the flows of trucks and trailers within the port.
The Port of Singapore
The Port of Singapore has long been one of the most technologically advanced ports in the world — a title they intend to keep long into the future. Joining forces with the National University of Singapore at the end of last year, the Port of Singapore is pushing port technology a few steps further with their Next Generation Port in Tuas.
This port is slated to become the single largest port in the world. Combining the existing terminals of Pasir Panjang, Tanjong Pagar, Keppel, and Brani, it plans to process 65 million TEU per year. When it goes into operation in 2021, the new port will feature innovative planning systems, automated cranes, and driverless vehicles, which have been in testing in the “Living Lab” in Pasir Panjang terminal for many years. This is something that I was able to observe during a visit in 2015. The most striking thing about the place? No people, anywhere.
The creation of what has been dubbed the New Silk Road has sparked a new impetus for transit-oriented innovation from China to Europe. With trillions of dollars of financing in the wings and long-term commitments from an array of governments, this initiative has created a reason to dream up and deploy new technologies. While some, like hyperloops and magnetically levitating “flying trains” traversing Eurasia remain pipe dreams, others are being implemented as we speak.
The hallmark of the New Silk Road is that starkly under-developed parts of the world are attempting to up their economic positions by linking in with more established markets via enhanced transport routes and economic corridors, but rather than climbing up the technological ladder rung by rung, many are jumping out ahead and going straight to some of the most advanced technological systems from the start.