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Why Ports Invest in Digitization Amid COVID-Related Slowdowns

COVID-19 slammed all points of the supply chain upon its global spread, and the activity in ports was no exception. Many container ships sailed with less cargo (or none at all) and some routes were cancelled due to the lack of trade. But now, ports have the opportunity to leverage COVID-19 in a positive way to start accepting data sharing across all the entities that touch goods, which could potentially facilitate more efficient trade.

In a recent webinar hosted by the IAPH World Ports Conference, Jens Meier, CEO of Hamburg Port Authority, admitted that the port industry must collectively rethink its investment strategies, particularly in digitization, if it wants to come out of the pandemic in a healthy position. The authority prioritized digital investments prior to the pandemic, enabling the organization to keep the port running despite the disruption.

“Many ports that started late will follow us now and not even just to keep the processes efficient, but also to keep their overall businesses resilient,” Meier said. “In crises like this where the number of employees in an office is now low, you have to keep the systems running, and digitization was key. Now we have to rethink what should stay and what should change after the crisis.”

Maqta Gateway has sought to spearhead digital transformation across trade and port communities ever since it was established by Abu Dhabi Ports in 2016, and has leveraged data sharing to prepare for a COVID-19-riddled world well before it even realized it would need to. Maqta is the developer and operator of the digital Port Community System (PCS) in the UAE, which is the technology behind the first semi-automated terminal in the region.

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The PCS standardizes and secures all the data exchanged among port stakeholders, customers and governmental authority entities, providing a single window to all information flow and port services. It can also interlink to other port community systems while following international standards for electronic data interchange. PCS has linked with major global ports including the Port of Antwerp in Belgium, the Port of Valencia in Spain and several ports in China.

The threat of COVID-19 challenged Maqta to speed up its digital acceleration initiatives. In fact, most of Maqta’s employees were 100 percent in the PCS within one week of the pandemic’s spread to the UAE.

“Now the interesting thing that we can see in the numbers is that when it comes to transactions, despite our young age as a port community system in Abu Dhabi, we have more than 13 million transactions that have been achieved—10 percent of them were during the COVID pandemic,” Noura Al Dhaheri, CEO of Maqta Gateway/Abu Dhabi Ports, said. “If you compare it as a year-over-year jump, that’s a more than 50 percent jump because of the pandemic, which is definitely a sign of accelerating adoption for the user and the user’s technology as it’s become the main way to access all of these services.”

Given that the UAE government assured that food and medical supplies would be uninterrupted at the start of the pandemic, Maqta saw an opening to determine the optimal location of warehouses that could store the goods, as well as PPE gear and sanitizer.

“We jumped into a project in order to offer the booking for the warehouses and our economic zone, which was free of charge during the pandemic,” Al Dhaheri said. “Through our systems, we give the different stakeholders visibility about their location and where they are.”

Maqta’s next project has even greater scale, with the company now in the process of “advancing” its PCS to link data from port systems with airports, border patrol and the free economic zone established at the warehouses.

Data sharing between global ports may be a more common reality going forward, in light of the need to share best practices for handling COVID-19, especially given the information known related to lowering costs.

“I always like to share these ideas because in the end, the ports are interfaces on both sides,” said Meier. “If the Port of Abu Dhabi works quite well and the Port of Hamburg works quite well, it’s good for the partners of both of the ports, as they can be introduced to the other ports.”

The remote access to all services is pivotal as more port employees were required to work from home. While these workers may have initially resisted the idea of accessing the port digitally, that discomfort disappears the day after they start the new process, said Geert De Wilde, CEO of supply chain data-sharing platform NxtPort. If anything, De Wilde believes the biggest challenge isn’t digitizing the port systems, it’s getting people to think they should stay that way when the pandemic subsides.

He also noted that while the digitization of many public sector-operated ports is attributed to the advancement in private-sector technologies, now is the perfect time for both sectors to collaborate, even if they don’t share the same vision.

“Most tech companies have seen a drop in business of about 30 percent,” De Wilde said. “We’ve continued to work full steam ahead with the Port of Antwerp to launch certified pick up (CPU), which has been fully digitized so when a container arrives in the port, we pull it in a touch-and-go concept in the most fluid way, and it has to be able to leave the port in a terminal. All the stakeholders involved have to be registered so that there’s an audit trail for the public sector. This is one example where we combine a security aspect with an efficiency gain in a paperless process.”

The system is designed to regulate the release of containers based on coded identification and authorization information, contributing to a more secure, effective and resilient supply chain, according to the Port of Antwerp. Certified pick-up will become obligatory for all supply chain partners involved in the container release process as of November.

“Rather than being connected to 10,000 different companies, they will be connected to entire communities of air freight and sea freight in Belgium,” De Wilde said. “It does not have to take too much time. If you really need to bring everyone together around the table to make sure the solution which you provide is workable, the risk always exists that the process becomes heavy to digest, and that’s what we have to avoid at any given price.”