Arguably, sea ports and terminals will loom large in the coming global supply chain upheavals and will take the lion’s share of logistics investments over the next few years, though that is not to say that such huge investments are without risks, especially from disruptive technology. Fired by the logistics giants of Amazon and Alibaba, global e-commerce is stirring the biggest shake up in international shipping since containerisation. There will be winners and losers, the latter being those shipping lines that fail to adapt by integrating with the likes of Alibaba’s Captain Peter App to track container loads, while freight forwarders and shipping agents will become obsolete under the new digitised retail supply chains, says David Jinks, Head of Consumer Research at ParcelHero. This digitised revolution will result in the Internet of Things-connected machines placing orders automatically with Chinese manufacturers, and integrating with autonomous ships like the soon-to-be launched, Yara Birkeland.

Since DP Word’s opening of its London Gateway container terminal, Britain has seen robust port upgrades and expansions with new ones, like Tilbury, just having been given the go-ahead. These developments will look more to Asia than America. As infrastructural linkages, like China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and trade agreements expand, Eurasia trade is accelerating and far outstripping either region’s trade with North America. China is strengthening its role as a logistics hub for BRI by investing $7 billion in upgrading Ukrainian infrastructure, including ports, roads and farms. It is also upgrading many Russian railway links. The whole of BRI will probably cost over $1 trillion.

UK port operators have not been slow to be part of BRI. DP World was at the forefront of the initiative as it witnessed the first train to arrive from China at its London Gateway terminal and the first train in the opposite direction exporting UK goods to China. The logistics advantage of this latter- day Silk Road are impressive. By sea the average journey time is 42 days. By train it is only about 13 days.

So far, fears that rising labour costs in Asia would see a re-shoring of western-outsourced manufacturing back to their main markets in Europe and America have been unfounded. But a new fear for containerised shipping could emerge through disruptive technology, namely 4D printing.

This adds the fourth dimension of time to 3D printing (additive manufacturing.) It uses ‘smart’ materials to create objects that can self-assemble, reshape themselves or otherwise react to changing conditions. The emergence of 4D printing has incredible disruptive potential in just about any industry you can think of. By 2030, for example, it is estimated than nearly a quarter of Dubai’s industrial buildings will be 3D printed.

Ports and shippers generally have come in for some criticism over recent years over their environmental record. While the shipping side certainly has some catch up to do the ports have taken environmental issues seriously.

Some have replaced diesel container movers with all-electric AGVs. Others, like Singapore, have just successfully trialled the world’s first shore-to-ship drone delivery in real time port conditions. The drone delivered 1.5 kg of 3D-printed consumables to a tug’s deck in a round trip of 3 km that took only 10 minutes. Such a development will cut delivery times sharply and lower shore-to-ship delivery costs by up to 90%, along with the carbon footprint and accident rate.

While still on carbon footprints, the environmentally conscious countries of Denmark and Sweden have just begun a 2-day ferry service using 3,000-ton plus, allelectric ships for the short trip connecting the two countries. They will remove many thousands of tons of CO2 each year.

BILL REDMOND

Features Editor