Despite the overall growth in freight traffic by sea, there is competition between the major ports of northern Europe for their importance in international goods traffic. Against the background of ever-growing container ships – the latest generation of mega freighters now entering the market have a capacity of more than 20,000 TEU – the ports of Hamburg and Bremerhaven in particular are being stretched to their absolute limits. In order to keep up to speed, such ports in particular must play a pioneering role in the development of innovative port technologies, paying particular attention to digital transformation.

The growing international trade and the global economic environment demand optimum flexibility, efficiency and transparency in business with ports. However, the most important driving forces behind (new) digital innovations are, as always, speed efficiency as well as cost effectiveness. These two aspects play an important role not only in port handling, but also in the implementation of (port) infrastructure projects.

Digitisation of port handling

As many different entities are involved with the arrival, on- and offloading and departure of the ship, the communication flow is time-consuming. At present, ports exchange information in different ways, resulting in errors and/or delays and in time-sensitive freight transport, delays cost money and pollute the environment. There is a lack of a global, unified information platform on which all relevant information about ship arrivals and departures is collected and made available to those involved in the port handling processes. This would facilitate the exchange of information that is essential for the most effective planning of shipping connections, such as detailed information on the cargo of ships to be unloaded or received, information on water depth at the terminal, ongoing registration procedures and arrival and departure times. With unified communications standards the shipping company could easily share necessary vessel information with the local shipping agent, the respective port authority, the coast guard and the custom authorities, to name only some of the involved entities. All these entities would be able to check the necessary pre- and post-arrival information online and could then optimise the complex logistic operations within the port handling.

However, fast and cost-efficient port handling requires more than just ship-related data. Traffic-related information is at least as important for controlling the traffic flows of the hinterland connections. By using real-time road traffic information, traffic flows at the port itself, for example, can be adjusted to avoid congestion. In this way, Big Data would not only increase cost efficiency, but also contribute to the prevention of air pollution and noise.

There are already initial efforts to establish a uniform, digital platform for the exchange of information between ship owners, terminal operators, forwarders, agents and haulage companies. With PRISE („Port River Information System Elbe“), the Port of Hamburg has its own information system that serves this very purpose. There are also the first international working groups to develop a digital platform that provides shippers and transport service providers with real-time shipment data to provide more effective shipment tracking from sea transport to destination. However, it will be some time before a globally uniform standard will be established. And in legal terms, data security, data protection and data sovereignty play a particularly important role in achieving this.

Digitisation of port infrastructure projects

Not only the port handling processes are subject to changes, the IT infrastructure also has to be adapted to shorter innovation cycles and larger data volumes. The digital transformation is not limited to the IT infrastructure, but applies to the port infrastructure as a whole. However, the digitisation of (port) infrastructure projects is not yet the focus of the ubiquitous discussion about digital transformation.

Large infrastructure projects in the maritime sector, such as the construction of a new port terminal, remain a challenge. Due to its complexity and the large number of sub-contractors involved, there is hardly any project that is completed within budget and/or on schedule, which naturally has far-reaching consequences in terms of direct and indirect damages. This is not only because, at least in part, planning is rarely completed at the start of construction. Moreover, there are always a large number of time-consuming and cost-intensive changes in almost every project.

In this regard, digital transformation not only helps with more reliable planning, it also facilitates the evaluation of changes and disturbances with regard to the schedule and costs as well as the allocation of the same to the various sub-contractors. As a result of digitisation, major projects can be completed faster, safer and with less risk.

The implementation of Building Information Modeling (BIM) processes is an important step on the way to digitising large-scale projects. While in the classical methodology of construction the individual disciplines act independently of each other, BIM is a multidimensional, integrative approach in which all relevant building data are digitally modelled, combined and centrally recorded. Changes are made directly to the model by the specialist planner and are directly available to all parties involved, both as a drawing and as a data package. Masses and quantities, which serve as a basis for cost calculation, for example, are automatically compared, the same applies to influences on the schedule. Thus BIM models not only reflect the three spatial dimensions, but also time and costs as the 4th and 5th information dimensions.

While BIM can be used to evaluate the effects of changes on costs and the schedule, System Dynamics serves as a method for analysing (multi-causal) disturbances in the construction process. System Dynamics is a method for the holistic analysis and simulation of complex and dynamic systems – and a (port) infrastructure project is nothing more than a complex and dynamic system. System dynamics models solve the problem of mutual causation by updating all variables in small time increments with positive and negative feedbacks and time delays structuring the interactions and control. Feedback loops and time delays are mapped into cause-and-effect relationships. Based on this, the formal model is simulated on the computer, i.e. the actual course of the project is reproduced taking into account all known disturbances and then the course of the project is simulated without (one or all of) these disturbances. By comparing the reproduced with the simulated course of the project, the temporal and financial effects of various competing disturbances can be identified and evaluated.

The digitisation of large-scale infrastructure projects in the maritime sector requires very close integration of design and programming – a challenge for everyone involved in planning processes. The same applies to the drafting of the respective (construction) contracts. Although neither the implementation of BIM processes nor the project analysis with System Dynamics require completely new contract types, some special features must be taken into account so that the contracts correctly describe the necessary processes, roles and interfaces.