Source: adapted from J. Garcia de la Guia (2010) "Technology for the Port Cluster Efficiency: valenciaportpcs.net", Terminal Operators Conference Europe, Valencia, Spain, June.
Port Community Systems
An emerging trend in the role of port authorities is the management of the regional freight transport system. One endeavor in that direction concerns the setting of Port Community Systems (PCS), which are an information entity that makes available logistical information among the actors involved in port-related freight distribution, including freight forwarders that act as intermediaries for importers (consignees) or exporters (consignors), terminal operators that are the interface between the port foreland and hinterland, customs, ocean carriers, inland carriers and the port authority itself. Conventionally, the transactional relations between these actors were very complex, with some being unilateral and proprietary.
The purpose of a PCS is not necessarily to create new information systems to manage freight activities, but to effectively link existing databases and management systems through a web portal, particularly through the conversion of different formats. Web portals are particularly suitable as an interface as web access is close to ubiquitous and increasingly supported by portable devices such as smartphones. The outcome is an improvement in the transactional efficiency and quality of actors among the logistical chain and correspondingly the efficiency of the regional freight distribution system. There are thus opportunities to improve performance (costs and reliability) that can be used as marketing strategies by the users of a PCS. It is important to underline that for each port region, a PCS can take different forms due to various physical, modal, jurisdictional and operational characteristics.
Among specific PCS applications can be noted:
  • Vessel call management. A carrier is able to issue a berth and anchorage request and to receive an authorization from the terminal operator. The firms involved in port services, such as pilotage, towage and mooring can also receive a service request at the same time. Simultaneously, related public authorities are notified, such as the port authority, customs and the port police.
  • Container handling management. Carriers (such as shipping companies or trucking firms) can interact with respective terminal operators through a standard interface, removing the issue of dealing with different terminal information systems. The cargo manifest is simultaneously provided to the carrier and the terminal operator as well as to regulatory agencies such as customs and the port authority. This enables an automatic cross-referencing with customs, clearing the cargo for import or export much faster.
  • Gate management. Electronic management of inbound and outbound movements at the terminal gate, which dominantly concern freight forwarders, shipping lines, trucking firms and terminal operators. It is possible to cover all the inland logistical operations, such as transport contracts, release orders and admittance orders, with a single electronic document. If the e-document is provided in advance, often by 24 hours, then all the processes can be pre-cleared, leaving only the physical movement of pick up or delivery to take place. This improves the throughput of existing gates, often more than doubling their capacity, without new infrastructures except automatic gate processing equipment.
  • Security and control. Strategies to automate the authorized and secure usage of the facilities, including access to cargo. A particular approach leans on the optical character recognition of license plates and container identification numbers. Real time observation can be cross-checked with bills of lading with discrepancies, which are subject to manual verification. This can also include other scanning devices such as radiation detection or RFID. Again, this results in a better usage of existing assets and at the same time it improves security procedures.
  • Tracking. All of the above enables through IT integration the tracking of container loads throughout the port community, from the moment they have been unloaded from a containership, while they are clearing the terminal gate or when they have been delivered. This permits a better level of supply chain management and asset utilization within the port community.
The setting of PCS is commonly a process that takes place through several phases. Depending on the existing level of information technology usage, some steps may not be required with the setting of a PCS becoming a matter of portal development and data interoperability. Therefore, PCS can be developed over three major phases:
  • Development of key channels. The first fundamental step concerns the setting of channels with key port users for standard and repetitive procedures in the form of digital documents. They include cargo manifest, customs declaration, vessel call requests and the reporting of dangerous goods.
  • Port community systems. Once key channels have been created, then the setting of a true PCS becomes possible, particularly by focusing on maritime shipping and inland freight distribution information. More actors are brought in, notably freight forwarders and inland transport firms. The purpose is to build a continuous information chain within the port region that includes the majority of the steps from the ship access to the port facility to the delivery of a container at an inland freight distribution center.
  • Expanded port community systems. Once a PCS has been established and is effectively been adopted by the port users, the next step tries to establish additional multiplying effects and quality improvements. This implies the further promotion of automation, such as the usage of RFID to favor the seamless movement of cargo, and a complete digitalization of documents so that all transactions take place in a paperless environment. This also implies the diffusion of best practices with other ports (and inland ports) with their eventual integration in a wider system. This could eventually lead to a comprehensive integration of information flows along supply chains, from the factory door to the door of an overseas consignee.
One of the key challenges in the setting of PCS concerns the creation of a consensus among port users that are traditionally disconnected and often competing for a market share. Since many ports already have various IT strategies, a PCS does not imply the same template, with substantial efforts being made to adapt to the cultural and operational reality of the locale. The development of web based applications and of wireless networks have made the development of PCS an operational reality. The issue is to assess the extent to which they generate added value to the port community through improvements in productivity, quality and reliability.