From elephants and bees to coffee and doughnuts, geo-fencing, a ubiquitous and accessible technology, could rescue us from the effects of port congestion whilst solving other supply chain inefficiencies
At nearly 30-years of age, Geofencing is not exactly a new idea. According to Wikipedia, geo-fencing was invented in the 90s and patented in 1995 by Michael Dimino, who used a combination of GPS and GSM technologies to deliver a cellular global tracking system (GTS) for remote tracking anywhere around the world. Today, geofences allow users to predefine a virtual area and trigger an alert when a device enters it.
Because geofences are low cost and ubiquitous – with trigger devices found in most people’s hands and pockets – they are used in a range of applications, from marketing, law enforcement and home automation, to human resource, fleet, drone, compliance and asset management. Companies like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Uber are even using geofences to produce personalized, locational messages, while conservationists are using geofences to keep track of and protect elephants in the wilds of Africa.
Defining the challenges for geo-fencing in seaborne logistics
The problems underlying port congestion are myriad, well defined and well reported, whether they’re attributed to imbalances in the supply chain, staffing issues and skills shortages, or a certain, unnamed global pandemic.
According to a recent report from DHL, port congestion has caused carrier schedule reliability to plunge to an all-time low: the most reliable carriers are on-time just 45% of the time, with the worst offenders only reliable 20% of the time, surpassing the state of affairs at the height of coronavirus.
Assuming that this situation is simply the result of the broader macroeconomy, however, brings problems of its own: little attention, for example, is currently being paid to how congestion plays out within ports, where there is vast potential for reducing inefficiencies. By making better use of geofences for internal operations, port managers could help provide consumers and businesses with their goods even sooner.
Port congestion impacting marine ecology too
The effect of port congestion on oceanic and atmospheric ecosystems cannot be ignored any more that the frustration of those awaiting cargo and deliveries.
According to an NTU report, pollutant emissions have increased significantly in recent years, at major ports, eg. Singapore – 123 percent and Los Angeles – 100 percent.
Hotelling – where ships at anchorage or berth consume fuel for long periods whilst awaiting cargo to be loaded or unloaded – is just one outcome of port congestion. As container vessels must keep on key instruments to ensure vehicle and crew safety, as well as maintain the condition of perishable cargo, switching off engines is not an option, meaning more diesel consumption and higher emissions.
Taken together, these emissions create an increased risk of water pollution and biofouling, which not only endangers marine life but could also lead to permanent environmental damage. Just as serious are the potential threats posed to the inhabitants of port cities, who are at a higher risk of heart and lung disease, which carries an increased risk of cancer due to higher levels of particulate emissions, and, in many cases, causes premature mortality. From a broader, sustainability point of view, higher emissions also hamper efforts to reduce embodied carbon and the overall carbon footprint of global shipping.
Reduced inefficiency requires a wider view of port operations
Cutting internal inefficiencies means considering how port value chains function at modular and systemic levels. Firstly, ports can be complex ecosystems on a massive scale. The port of Shanghai, for example, covers a reported area of 3,619.6km² at the mouth of the Yangtse River – and congestion is highly stratified between berths, docks, anchorages and other sites. Of particular note are terminals, the sites where freight is unloaded, inspected and documented, which are vulnerable to a multitude of human and administrative setbacks.
Secondly, the way in which port congestion is calculated is too static and fails to accommodate for dynamism in ports. Port congestion is often defined as the number of vessels at anchor, but this does not account for arriving ships, ship types, and total cargo. For example, ships due to arrive at a port within a given time slot will reduce their speed in order to minimize time at anchor and save fuel, but they require processing just the same, which contributes to increased congestive pressures.
Geo-fencing – aiding a supply chain all at sea
Maritime technology, a market with an estimated value of USD 159bn, offers some impressive solutions which take account of these issues. Geo-fencing can be used to signal when an instrumented vessel enters it, providing a much more accurate reading of the total number of active and idle vessels in ports.
These defined areas can be dynamic and adjusted over time, too, in order to account for the seasonal and macroeconomic changes that affect congestion. It is no surprise, then, that geo-fencing has a predicted compound annual growth rate of 26.7%: geo-fencing promises to enable ports to better adjust to terminal-level congestion, mitigate build-ups, and provide more precise information on shipping delays.
The second area for enhanced congestion predictability is by calculating the number of Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) on-site, rather than the number of vessels at anchor. Not only are ships constantly moving around port areas, they also bear heterogenous cargo sizes, from those with a capacity of less than 1000 TEUs, up to those with almost 24,000 – like the Ever ACE, the world’s largest container ship. These size variations create massive differences in port queues but can be accurately predicted by reporting on TEUs either manually or through cargo instrumentation.
Geo-fencing benefits too great for even the smallest to ignore
Perhaps the most compelling incentive for implementing geo-fencing technologies into port controls is that they are not only accessible, effective, and straightforward to implement: they help to mitigate congestion, which benefits all stakeholders in the supply chain.
And not only can geo-fencing reduce port congestion and marine pollution, but also increase the predictability of cargo transit times and, perhaps most importantly, lead to much higher levels of end-customer satisfaction.