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IoT-enabled condition monitoring for smarter ports


Port operators all around the world know that the ability to reliably connect people and equipment both onshore and offshore, and exchange data in a secure manner, is essential to operational efficiency. The Internet of Things (IoT) plays an important role in ensuring optimal port operations by minimizing disruptions caused by unplanned equipment downtime, which makes it easier for port operators to develop and maintain profitable business relationships.

The benefits of machine-to-machine communication in a port environment

IoT is continuously growing and expanding to encompass new industry verticals and application areas, and ports are no exception. Whatever the environment, IoT solutions need to have reliable connection to be effective. For most industrial IoT applications, a private network serves as a much more suitable technical foundation than a public network or Wi-Fi.

While every port is different, connectivity has historically always been a challenge. Wired solutions are obviously of limited use in a port scenario, and Wi-Fi is almost always too intermittent for mission-critical industrial applications. The beauty of a private cellular network is that it makes it possible for a port operator to ensure ubiquitous wireless connectivity across the entire operation – land, air and sea – while having full control, without any gaps or blind spots. Beyond the technical advantages, the total cost of ownership over time is unbeatable.

Ensuring a robust supply chain

Seaports play a critically important role in the international supply chain. As a result, logistics disruptions at ports have a negative effect on everyone along the chain, from the producer to the consumer. In many cases, these disruptions are caused by malfunctions and breakdowns of the special-purpose vehicles used in ports such as cranes, spreaders, reach stackers, straddle carriers and automated guided vehicles (AGVs). Port vehicles are often exposed to extreme environmental conditions such as high levels of precipitation, strong sunlight, high winds, sand, dust and salty air. To help them withstand such a harsh environment, they require sensors and gateways that are designed to withstand both shocks and vibrations.

The tight schedule of the global logistics chain cannot be maintained unless all the equipment involved in container handling is running smoothly, without malfunctions and breakdowns. To minimize the substantial risk of unplanned downtime in such a tough environment, port operators now have the option of using wireless, IoT-enabled monitoring systems equipped with precise sensor technology to detect performance issues caused by factors such as bearing damage, imbalance and mechanical wear. The connected IoT sensors gather data and transmit it from port systems and machines to higher-level systems. As a result, any suboptimal performance or damage can be detected early, ensuring maximum equipment uptime. These types of solutions are known as real-time condition monitoring.

Condition monitoring is one of five key use cases for ports

In collaboration with ifm, a global manufacturer of sensors and controls for industrial automation, Ericsson and Arthur D. Little have identified five use cases that we consider to be the most beneficial applications for smart ports:

  1. Remote-controlled ship-to-shore cranes
  2. Automated rubber-tired gantry cranes
  3. Automated guided vehicles
  4. Condition monitoring
  5. Drones for surveillance and deliveries

In our conversations with port operators during the past few months, we have noticed a particularly strong interest in use case #4, condition monitoring of critical port assets. This is not especially surprising, considering that most port operators say that lack of visibility about equipment status is their biggest problem today. Condition monitoring ensures immediate awareness of problems for fast response, which has a major impact in terms of reducing costs, saving time and helping ports to remain competitive in the long term.

While various kinds of sensors have been used on port equipment for decades – on cranes in particular – until recently, cable connections from each sensor to the central operator have been necessary to report operational status in real time. Cable connections are highly effective on a smaller scale, but in most cases they are not a feasible solution for large-scale, comprehensive condition monitoring and preventive maintenance of port equipment due to the high cost of installing and maintaining so many cables.

Wireless communication is obviously a much more attractive alternative. But without a private network in place, it can be prohibitively expensive to install large numbers of sensors, as public networks tend to require that each sensor has its own data plan. Ideal for high-density scenarios with relatively small footprints, private networks are the perfect fit for ports that want to implement real-time condition monitoring of critical port assets.

In North America, the Port of Tacoma is one of several large ports investigating the feasibility of implementing a 5G private network. In its recently published report, it highlights the benefits of condition monitoring in particular and concludes with a recommendation in favor of implementing a private network. After coming to a similar conclusion, Virginia International Terminals (VIT) recently announced their intention to invest in a private 5G network. The Utah Inland Port Authority is yet another example of a large port that is actively exploring the benefits of using a private network to enable real-time condition monitoring of its equipment.

The condition monitoring use case

According to Port Technology, 25% of the cost of equipment damage in ports is due to inadequate or incorrect maintenance. That statistic alone suggests that the use of cellular-connected sensors to continuously monitor the condition of critical machines, equipment and other assets such as cranes, AGVs and stacks of containers – including factors such as vibration and temperature – has the potential to lower maintenance costs significantly. As the risk of equipment breakdown decreases, the risk for accidents also drops, thereby improving workplace safety.

Depending on the use case, the sensors used in condition-monitoring applications can require response times as fast as a fraction of a second, which makes a private 5G network ideal. In a 5G private network set-up, the condition-monitoring software has the ability to receive data wirelessly from a large number of sensors in real time, detect any abnormalities and determine when an asset requires maintenance. Beyond the sensor data, a dedicated, AI-based pattern monitoring function in an edge controller (or in the cloud) is used to identify critical situations based on several data points from the machine. Early detection of potential faults and their causes makes breakdowns a rare occurrence and minimizes response times when they do occur. Research by Port Strategy also indicates that cellular-connected sensors and a cloud-based solution reduces on-the-ground monitoring efforts by 40%.

A robust and reliable condition monitoring solution requires a network that can manage high connection density and transfer data in real time with extremely high reliability. The port also needs to be able to process and analyze the data in the cloud securely in real time.

On top of preventing breakdowns, condition monitoring also eliminates the costs associated with “over-maintenance.” According to Saab RDS, this enables port operators to reduce expenditures on spare parts, oils and maintenance resources by as much as 50%. Data from HBM indicates that condition monitoring of cranes in particular can reduce maintenance costs by as much as 75%.

Together with ifm, we have calculated that the financial benefit of condition monitoring in a port is approximately 2.7% of the revenue as yearly steady state net value. This leads to a payback approximately two years after rollout and a full return on investment by year five. For more details on the condition monitoring use case and the other four key use cases for ports, check out our Connected Ports report.

Case study: Rotterdam container terminal

Rotterdam World Gateway, a major container terminal in the Port of Rotterdam, serves as an excellent example of how sensors can be used to ensure trouble-free loading and unloading in a port. This port is the largest in Europe, handling more than 430 million tons of cargo every year. The giant dockside cranes lift the containers from the ship and put them on AGVs every minute.

Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) – essentially trucks without a cab – are able to move without drivers. Instead, a programmable logic controller (PLC) for mobile applications controls the vehicles’ movements with the help of sensors. The AGVs transport the containers from the dockside crane to the stacking yard. There, stacker cranes pick the containers and stack them in the storage area. The logistics computer knows exactly where to position each container. The containers are stacked according to their storage times, following an optimized pattern to ensure an efficient and trouble-free operation to meet the tight schedules in international container handling. Every minute of delay costs money, so it is imperative that the technology functions flawlessly in all conditions – icy cold, roasting hot, stormy and rainy. Condition monitoring of the AGVs and other port equipment ensures a high degree of reliability in fleet management, making breakdowns exceedingly rare.

A world of possibilities with private networks

The robust and reliable communications enabled by private networks and IoT sensors make it possible for smart ports to achieve high-level efficiencies and reduce costs through an ecosystem of smart security, asset management and network infrastructure capabilities. Beyond real-time condition monitoring, IoT technologies can also be used to optimize inventories, monitor containers, improve logistics and boost safety and security.

Read more

Read Ericsson’s Connected Ports Report.

Transform your port with cellular technology.

Learn more about Rotterdam World Gateway.



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