Singapore’s High Technology Port Delivers a Logistics Edge

First-time visitors coming in to Singapore’s Changi Airport often remark on its salubrious surroundings and smooth, efficient processes – a main performance target is to have the first bag on the belt within 12 minutes of aircraft touchdown, for instance. But this is not just for show. Well beyond the airport, world-class infrastructure and high performance in logistics are key elements of Singapore’s efforts to attract people and businesses and build its position as a desired hub for Asia.

Allied with an open and business-friendly economy, it’s a strategy that appears to be working: Singapore ranks first out of 189 countries in ease of doing businesses (World Bank’s Doing Business survey); for the last several years it has topped the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Business Environment Index; and it is second only to Switzerland in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.

More specifically for logistics,  the World Bank’s latest (2014) Logistics Performance Index – which measures aspects such as efficiency of customs and border clearance, quality of trade and transport infrastructure, and the frequency with which shipments reach consignees within scheduled delivery times – ranks Singapore top in Asia and fifth out of 160 countries globally.

Compared to the airport, the country’ main shipping port, operated by PSA Singapore Terminals, is likely a less familiar example of infrastructure and logistics excellence. But with 33.9 million 20-foot containers (TEU) handled in 2014, globally, it is second only to Shanghai (35.2 million TEUs) in terms of container traffic and is the world’s busiest in terms of transhipment cargo.

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A successful transhipment hub requires not only high connectivity (Singapore is connected by 200 shipping lines to 600 ports in 123 countries) but also very efficient logistics ­– so that containers can quickly and correctly transfer from incoming to outgoing vessel. And as container volumes have grown over the years and port operations become more complex, PSA has been quick to apply technology – both the information and automation variety – to keep port productivity and efficiency high.

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Probably most well-known is the world’s first collaborative port community solution, PORTNET, which connects shipping lines, hauliers, freight forwarders and government agencies, helping them to manage information and synchronize complex operational processes. Features of PORTNET include online ordering of port services to facilitate vessel berthing and container handling, and extensive track and trace capability for container status (arrival and discharge timings), vessel location, and reefer container temperature, among others.

Meanwhile, for planning and execution within the port, CITOS (Computer Integrated Terminal Operations System) coordinates and integrates the port’s multiple assets, from prime movers, yard cranes, quay cranes to containers and drivers. It automatically generates ship stowage and yard layout plans such that containers can be stacked in a logical rather than random manner, which maximizes asset utilization and optimizes retrievals.

More directly at the equipment level, innovations include the Flow-Through Gate, a fully automated system that identifies and security-clears incoming container trucks (average traffic flow of 700 trucks per peak hour) and provides drivers with drop-off location instructions – all within 25 seconds . And the ROCC (Remote Crane Operations & Control) system allows operators to be stationed in a control room, rather than on-crane, to remotely monitor and control crane movements.

According to PSA, automation will continue to play a “transformative role” in port operations in the future. As well as implementing a fully-automated yard crane at its newest terminal, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) for handling movement of containers between quay and container yard have been undergoing tests in a pilot project.

Kalmar, part of Cargotec, recently completed the on-board navigation application for PSA’s four prototype AGVs used in the project. Specifically, Kalmar’s software automatically controls the AGVs, guiding the vehicles along their given routes and measuring their positions using transponder navigation. And diagnostics tools provide a remote view of AGV operation of the equipment, as well as storage and call-up of AGV alarms.

AGVs operating 24/7 in this manner are set to be feature at PSA’s container terminals before too long, reducing the need for prime movers and drivers. It’s worth noting that companies operating in Singapore, which has full employment and relies extensively on foreign labor for many of the lower-level manufacturing and logistics tasks, does find automation relatively easy to justify. In fact, the government is currently on a major productivity drive and offering generous grants and tax incentives for appropriate technology investments.

Looking further ahead, consolidation of PSA’s current seven container terminals at four locations (Keppel, Brani, Tanjong Pagar, Pasir Panjang) to a single location in the form of a mega port at Tuas on the western end of the island is set to further boost efficiencies through eliminating inter-terminal haulage and enabling economies of scale.

The new mega port, which is scheduled to open in phases from 2025, has a planned capacity of 65 million TEUs annually – more than 50 percent up on present capacity – and will no doubt be even more highly automated and IT intensive, as Singapore looks to stay extend its long maritime history and remain in the very top tier of global shipping ports for many decades to come.

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