By Alex Binkley

Increased adoption of digital technologies by the marine transportation sector could go a long way to boosting port productivity and resolving problems in international shipping, says Allan Gray, President and CEO of Halifax Port Authority. Shipping has been bogged down by the effects of the pandemic, he told the annual conference of the Association of Canadian Port Authorities. “We need collaboration to solve the problems COVID has dumped on us. Digitization of the sector will enable evidence-based decisions made through diversity of thinking and all parts of a port coming together to solve problems.”

To facilitate that kind of problem solving, the Port Authority created PIER, which stands for Port Innovation, Engagement, and Research, to house a living lab for solving maritime transportation and logistics challenges. It enables companies with expertise in shipping and logistics to collaborate with global industry leaders to create a fully interconnected port. “We need to have everyone working with others to find the common objective and understand each other’s issues,” he said. PIER is valuable in identifying problems that need resolving. “It has to be a constant activity and move everyone beyond the “I got the contract signed” phase. It brings in the other companies in the port to set out a vision for solving a problem.”

It also enables everyone in the port to know what the future holds and share the data everyone needs to make good decisions, remain agile and find the best solutions to problems. “Being smart with data and collaborating can save hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure, and find better solutions to problems. This can be especially important for smaller ports,” he said. “Good data could reduce our need for new infrastructure. We also need to get good balance in our network and that will enable us to survive COVID, climate change and other problems.”

Kelvin Tan, Deputy CEO of PSA, which operates the port’s south-end container terminal, said the partners in a port have to approach problems with a “we’re all in it together” attitude and a focus on collaborating, to deal with problems in the supply chain. We have to collaborate in looking for solutions and be accessible to our partners. “Business used to be conducted on a need to know basis but you have to be more open to make collaboration work. You have to take on problems in an organized way and figure out the barriers to collaboration. One you start collaborating, you can deal with other issues and work with other partners in the system. It’s the snowball effect of collaboration.”

Digitization helps in this process by bringing together the information that can be shared with Canada Border Services Agency and shipping lines, Tan said. “We need real time data to build our business and share data with a purpose. Private matters can be kept secret but etverything can be shared with others. Digitization is a tool and success depends on how well you use it. “Everybody in the Port has tonnes of data which can help with decision making and enhance what we do to grow the business. Don’t reinvent the wheel.”

PSA collaborates with CN, which hauls the containers to and from its terminal, he said. “We want to bring the supply chain together and put competition within the Port aside so we can develop a level of trust in each other. The challenge in shipping is the port to port movement on a global basis.”

Gray and Tan spoke to the virtual conference from the PIER building on the Halifax waterfront.