Current ways of operating ports and port cities are not viable or sustainable and a complete change in mindset, technology and skills is needed in the very near future, Norton Rose Fulbright national transport team head and master mariner Malcolm Hartwell said this week.“Ships are getting bigger and bigger. Soon, cargo will move to megahubs and be transferred to smaller feeder ships operating along the coast. That is the way the world is moving.

“But, then, you have to have the facilities and technology to manage these vessels,” he pointed out during a presentation at the eThekwini Maritime Cluster’s Annual Maritime Summit, in Durban, on Tuesday.Instead of working in silos as was happening currently, there was a need for a far more integrated approach to both planning and policy. This would have to be driven by government and could not be left to more fickle market forces, he observed.

Hartwell pointed out that, already, ships were far more technologically sophisticated than the ports and terminals at which they berthed. However, this was neutralised by the inefficiencies and bottlenecks they encountered on the landside.If South African ports like Durban and their related port cities were to take full advantage of the global trend towards transshipment, there would have to be a complete change.

“Global trends of urbanisation, digitisation and sustainability affect both companies and individuals. Integrated city solutions, together with emerging business models such as the circular economy, will transform the way that everyone does business,” he said.Currently, the extractive industrial model involved “take, make and dispose” whereas a more appropriate circular industrial model used systems that were designed to eliminate and reuse waste, emphasised the use of renewable energy sources and required planning that included industry, commerce and citizens.

He said the drivers for change were economic losses and structural waste, price risks and resource price volatility, supply risks and security, the degradation of natural systems (climate change, the loss of biodiversity, pollution and population growth), regulatory trends, advances in technology and urbanisation.For Hartwell, the ports of the future would be characterised by bigger vessels, broader carrier alliances, consolidation of container capacity, larger hub-and-spoke port networks, and changing costs and profit sources.

Megahubs – of which Durban could be one – would require a whole new level of connectivity and synergy. At the coalface, this would require integrated platforms for stowage and planning, cloud-based information and interactive apps and increased collaboration for planning, notification and performance metrics.“At the end of the day, it is all about computing power and access to big data to improve efficiencies in the logistical chain,” he pointed out.A system that would incorporate “pit stop vessel operations” would require a greater degree of vessel automation, on-board tracking, fleet control and real-time remote control. There would be a need for optimised berth utilisation with better visibility for carriers, as well as greater interaction between port authority terminals and vessels to minimise idle time.

Overall, this translated into a "quantum leap in productivity".Unpacking this further, Hartwell said productivity improvements had to include integrated planning to correlate port, terminal and transport resources, a digital terminal system for monitoring and decision-making and increased collaboration between “healthy” hubs.“But it is always more difficult when you are dealing with these issues in a developing economy,” he noted.Driving up efficiencies and revising port charges – especially when it came to the transshipment of goods – would result in more automation and remote operation.

This was not a futuristic concept. Already, in the ports of Rotterdam and Hamburg, there is not a single person in the container terminals. All operations are done by remote control or automated.But this would require different skills sets as well as completely different tariff structures, he added.“But if Durban can succeed as a major transshipment hub, this will be something that could be exported to the rest of Africa,” he concluded.