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  • Writer's pictureKevin Martin

Smart Digital Ports, Rotterdam - 2023

Conference season is upon us again, and one of my favourites is Port Technology International's Smart Digital Ports of the Future, held in Rotterdam.

Arriving in Rotterdam was an interesting experience this year. Feyenoord won their 16th league title on the Saturday, so the city centre was still recovering from the celebrations.

The networking evening before the conference is always a good opportunity to meet fellow professionals and spend some time engaging with port delegates to gauge their interests and understand their challenges.

With the conference under way, one thing I observed is that over the last few years, the quality of the presentations has continued to improve. Gone are buzzword-laden presentations of old, showcasing vapour-ware solutions from vendors exploring growth in verticals that they don't really understand.

This year, I enjoyed many informative sessions with qualitative examples of real technology application. Of all the "Smart Port" conference providers out there, the PTI team stand head and shoulders above the rest. They have worked their socks off to create events that deliver real value for delegates.

Although there was a heavy focus on the application of 5G this year (the main sponsors were Verizon and BT), I didn't see any examples that capitalised on the full value proposition of the technology. In many respects, for me anyway, it remains a solution in search of a problem. One very interesting presentation that I followed up on later focused on the challenges of the technology, including the limitations of spectrum availability.

In fairness to each of the presenters, they did acknowledge that other communication technologies remain available (think wireless, 4G, LoraWan), and that 5G is not the answer to everything. Sometimes the older technologies are good enough.

It also didn't surprise me that 6G got a brief mention. Watch out for that in a conference near you soon!

For me the stand-outs were real world applications of Artificial Intelligence and Digital Twins. On the face of it, these seem to be the core technology concepts that are delivering early results. The use of AI to classify noise and identify the source as part of a mitigation strategy was a new and interesting application of the technology (and a nice departure from Yard/Vessel Optimisation), while another port demonstrated how their Digital Twin is supporting their Asset Management strategy.

As always, there was the age-old discussion of data standardisation and data sharing. It feels like there is a way to go on that yet, but it does make me wonder - if ports are at the convergence of a wealth of data from a variety of stakeholders that already conforms to standards - is the ongoing discussion just a way of avoiding the more challenging activity of establishing behaviours and conformance within the businesses?

Unsurprisingly, Blockchain seems to be firmly in the trough of disillusionment for now. It didn't feature in any of the discussions, and for now at least, it seems that most have decided not to pursue the application of this technology. Perhaps this is because the concept is more appropriate in the broader context of a process involving multiple actors, rather than an individual organisation.

One final thought... In a presentation on Port Community Systems, the speaker of a developing island nation shared their experience. He mentioned that despite all the PCS available on the market, it had been cheaper to build their own from scratch.

Typically, enterprise architecture rules suggest "re-use before buy before build", with "build" being the most expensive option.

It is perhaps indicative of the complexity of the industry we work in that the variations between countries and regions are so vast (and often unique) as to flip that rule on its head.

After an exciting and informative session where I got the chance to catch up with old acquaintances and make lots of new friends, I'm looking forward to being back in Rotterdam next month for TOC.

Hope to see you there!

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