Port standardisation: cleared for take-off


I was in Hamburg in May at the INTTRA Tech Summit and I heard something that was music to my ears. A managing director of a large shipping company commented that implementing new IT systems isn’t the problem we face as an industry, sharing data is. In June, the discussions at TOC Europe largely revolved around the idea of standardisation in the industry. With this in mind, I got to thinking about whether there is a blueprint for standardisation that the maritime industry could adopt. The answer is yes.

Most would agree that the terminal industry exists in a closed, silo driven data structure where data is hoarded. Vendor-to-vendor cooperation is scarce at best, and at worst, avoided and limited. In a world where every individual company and organisation is out for themselves, this makes competitive sense. But the port industry must ask itself: what is it going to take to move beyond this ‘competitive first’ strategy, allowing us as an industry to see the significant advantages that co-operation can provide?

It is worth noting that the Port Equipment Manufacturers Association (PEMA) is making positive steps towards developing standards. Through initiatives like its TOS-ECS Interface Standard, first published in 2014, and its new Terminal Industry Committee 4.0 (TIC 4.0), announced in June 2018, it is in fact making inroads towards standardisation. That said, if we’re interested in not repeating the errors of others, then it is worth reviewing a peripheral industry — aviation — which has already gone through the struggle of answering the question of standardisation and come out on the other side — for better or worse.

Flight lessons

Airports have grappled with this very question, and the concept of collaboration, for decades, and in doing so have made significant progress towards a realistic and now tried and tested solution. The journey has been long, and to reach the point of sharing data as an industry there were many stopovers along the way at smaller problems that required solutions before they were able to reach their final destination.

The first major challenge to sharing data is an industry-wide acceptance that data is important and that using it wisely would benefit everyone. When it comes to data, the aviation sector benefits from its broad regulations. Through regulation, it has been forced from an early point to collect and store data. The rise of computing and more cost-effective hardware systems gave birth to the Airport Operational Database (AOBD) in the 1990s. AODB would prove to be one of the precursors to big data. These systems were responsible for collecting data from disparate IT subsystems, storing it centrally, and feeding this data out to systems that required it to make decisions.

The AODB allowed disparate sub-systems to speak with one another through a centralised platform, meaning those systems would only need a single interface to communicate. However, these interfaces were expensive and time consuming to develop because there were no agreed standards for a protocol and no agreed standards for the data. Each vendor’s AODB had its own interface protocols and data standards. In simple terms, flight numbers and destination codes could be treated entirely differently from system to system.

A standard data definition for the aviation industry was crucial to sharing data, and in 2005, the aviation industry set to work on their first industry-wide data standardisation effort. To address this challenge, stakeholders from across the industry came together to develop the AIDX messaging standard. The logistics industry must learn from this: the development of the AIDX protocol was a joint effort from various industry stakeholders, including airports, airlines, industry bodies, regulators, and vendors. No single party had greater levels of influence, which allowed for a mutually beneficial framework to be developed. The AIDX standard is still in use today.

The standardisation of data proved that sharing data is much easier when everyone is playing from the same sheet of music. But at first, it wasn’t perfect. It still relied on bespoke interfaces between individual systems to exchange data between stakeholders. Each of these interfaces required time. For an airline, this meant dozens of unique interfaces to develop and manage — no small feat. The solution was a network-wide data sharing platform.

The development and implementation of Eurocontrol’s Airport Collaborative Decision Making (A-CDM) has a set of clearly defined data standards and processes that make sharing and leveraging data between various stakeholders seamless. As the first network-wide implementation of data sharing among stakeholders, it has proven to be quite successful, with clear benefits being realised by ground handlers, airports, and airlines. It is being further deployed at airports in Europe and globally.

Cleared for landing

Successful data-sharing is central to optimised decision-making, but beyond that, it is paramount to the future of the container terminal and shipping industry. Data is quickly changing all aspects of business and life — ports and terminal operators need to realise that the data they generate is valuable to them and to third parties. Access to that data and how easily it can be shared are key questions that they should be asking. Now is the time as an industry to move toward data standardisation and set the groundwork for a unified platform to share data across the network.

Looking to the future, A-CDM does drive a broad range of benefits to many stakeholder groups. But a key user group was unintentionally forgotten. While passengers benefit from A-CDM, it wasn’t something that was made clear. Take for example, operationally speaking, a flight which is held on the ground for two hours due to a severe weather forecast at the destination airport at its scheduled time of arrival. This saves the airline fuel. It allows the origin airport to move the aircraft to a remote stand and free up the gate. It allows the destination airport to adjust their resource requirements in advance. The operational, environmental, and financial benefits are clear.

However, all the passenger will see is a flight remark on a display reading “Delayed”. This has the complete opposite effect of what was intended. Instead of the passenger thinking: “Great, I’d rather be stuck on the ground then circling my destination with no leg room”, they begin to stress about missed opportunities as the reasons for the delay aren’t clear to them. In addition, their family may get stuck circling in the car or, worse, paying an absurd airport short-term parking fee to wait (and that’s not to mention the coffee that is 300% what you’d pay anywhere else). The good news here is that a newer A-CDM 2.0 model has been proposed to address this shortcoming.

But we all want leg room

It would be straightforward for the shipping industry and container terminal world to bring together the biggest vendors, container terminal operators, and shippers to hash-out a plan for standardisation — and this would be a great first step, as was A-CDM version 1. But then we wouldn’t be learning from the aviation industry mistakes.

To successfully implement a standard, it must be something that all interested parties are involved in developing. Without input and subsequent buy-in, the standard will fail to fly. Excluding smaller vendors, smaller ports, and smaller shippers is like forgetting the passengers. They’ll be expected to play by the rules — they might even benefit from those rules, but they may not see that fact because they’re too busy worrying about the impact it will have on their businesses.

In short, by developing and implementing a data and interface standard solution that provides benefits to terminal operators, port authorities, shippers, vendors, truckers and rail operators, as well as the senders/receivers of goods, the shipping industry has an opportunity to drive network-wide efficiency while also improving customer service — a win-win. To get there, we must take the perspective that inclusion, rather than exclusion, is the best path forward. Admittedly, it is the harder path filled with debate and disagreement — but at the end of the journey, the destination will be worth it.