Ports were alerted to the risks from a coming surge in automation at the 29th IAPH World Ports Conference, held in Hamburg on 1-5 June.
World ports were challenged at the gathering to stop thinking in terms of their own ‘silo’ and to recognise how some of their business could pass to entrepreneurs who better handle the implications of automation.
Increasingly sophisticated technology is poised to drive exponential change in the transport sector, said Gerd Leonhard, CEO of the Futures Agency.
“There will be faster technological change in the next 20 years than in the past 300 years,” he told delegates in a keynote speech on 2 June.
“Everything that can be automated will be automated.”
Ports need to look at their operations and identify which aspects of them are “digitally contestable”, he argued.
“If you do not get ahead of the curve in the digital revolution, someone from outside the ports sector who is better qualified will take those parts of the business from you,” he said.
“The big mistake is to overinvest in what is, rather than what might be.”
Technological change will also propel collaboration and interconnectivity, he added.
“The future for transport companies will be about managing interdependence rather than competing with each other,” said Leonhard.
The first afternoon session of the conference was largely devoted to the issue of expanding box ship sizes.
Jost Bergmann, a DNV GL container ship specialist, pointed out that recent increases in the size of the largest box ships showed diminishing returns, suggesting the vessels might not get much bigger.
Several speakers suggested the safety risks that bigger ships pose in ports had been given too little weight in the rush to increase ship sizes to gain economies of scale.
Benjamin Lai, managing director of DaChan Bay Terminal in the Pearl River Delta, commented on the trend’s implications for crane productivity. Lifts per hour decline with larger ships due to the greater distances involved, he said.
“We need to work closer with our shipping lines to improve productivity,” said Lai.