In general, every production process is sized according to the capacity of its constraining resources, which is usually equipment that requires greater investment. A port operation should operate in the same way, in which the constraints dictating the operational capacity are the container handling equipment (container crane, Mobile Harbour Crane – MHC, etc.).

Therefore, the back office operation of a port must be sized according to the capacity of its operation.

The primary function of the back office is to provide the necessary conditions to maximise the utilisation of the resources, and thereby increase the MPH (moves per hour) of the operation. Besides being the main operational efficiency indicator, MPH also serves as a commercial tool to attract shippers, and freight forwarders, who seek to minimise the time of the ship standing at the port and avoid additional demurrage costs. Therefore, to increase the efficiency of a port operation it is necessary to understand what factors impact the MPH. In general, such factors can be divided into two types: internal and external. Internal factors are directly linked to the operation of the port and it is possible to identify improvement opportunities for direct action. External factors are indirect and do not allow a more effective action.

External factors
External factors are problems arising from natural causes or uncontrollable factors, in which the operation cannot act directly to prevent. This type of problem or risk should be mapped in order to find an opportunity to minimise its impacts. These factors can include:

Weather conditions: Depending on the severity of climatic conditions – wind, lightning and rain – the activity should be interrupted for operational safety reasons.
Tide: Ports that do not have a deep draught need to evaluate the tide tables to check whether the ship will have the conditions to dock at the berth during that period.
Hatches: The MPH is related to the number of hatches on the vessel and also the distribution of containers along the vessel.
External cargo: Often, even with the vessel’s shipment nearly finished loading, the vessel needs to stand still for hours, or even for days, awaiting the arrival of external cargo.

Internal factors
Internal factors are operational source issues, which need to be measured and monitored to obtain a reliable database that supports concrete improvement actions. These factors can include:

Obstruction of internal flows: Obstructions increase the arrival time of the vehicle to the ported vessel and consequently expands the cycle time of the internal carousel, leaving the container crane or MHC idle.
Employee Shift Changeover: The MPH usually drops dramatically, reaching less than 50% of its capacity during the intervals between the current shift exit and the entry of the next shift.
Equipment failures: Unexpected shutdown of the container crane or of the MHC due to the lack of preventive maintenance plan.
Container Cranes and Cranes Operators’ Productivity: The variation of ability between operators can generate an oscillation of up to 40% in the productivity of operations that use older equipment (MHCs).

What to do to increase the efficiency of a port operation?

Since external factors generally cannot be addressed with direct action, efforts should be focused on improving internal factors. Some actions can be implemented to help increase efficiency according to the internal factor that is impacting the operation:

Clearing internal flows:

1. Excessive concentration of cargoes in a given area of the terminal
In this case, the planning area shall should distribute the cargoes to be loaded and unloaded from the ship in the rear area in a balanced manner in order to avoid a concentration of containers, vehicles, RTGs and reach stackers operating simultaneously in a single location.

2. Quantity of excess vehicles within the terminal
The planning area must control and maintain a balance between entry and exit of vehicles in the terminal to avoid obstruction of pathways and reduction of the operational capacity of the vehicle. Thus, it is necessary to know the capacity and have good control of the processes of gate in and gate out, prioritising inputs, outputs and using reversible gates when possible.

3. Inefficient gate processes
Map the gate in and gate out process to identify opportunities for automation and increased efficiency of these activities. Check what information can be collected beforehand in order to minimise the vehicle’s time in the gate.

Minimisation of employee shift changeover time
The best way to minimise the impact of shift exchange on MPH is to measure employees at their equipment so operation does not stop. To enable this, a good practice is to install an electronic employee time attendance on the equipment itself.

Decrease in equipment downtime
It is essential to plan and perform preventive maintenance in order to reduce the occurrence of corrective maintenances. This planning must be carried out in an integrated manner between maintenance teams and operation teams, aligning the periods of downtime of each equipment with the needs of the operation.
Another important action is to monitor is the repair time of the equipment. It is often better to perform the immediate exchange of equipment (if you have spare equipment in stock), instead of attempting to repair it in place. A good example is the spreader, a piece of equipment that often needs maintenance (due to the high impact use), but in several situations, the time to change it is shorter than the time to repair it.

Encouraging healthy competition among operators
Constantly monitoring the performance of operators and publishing their productivity rankings are ways to promote healthy competition between them. The mere fact of knowing that they are being monitored and compared to each other contributes considerably to the increase in performance. Another alternative is to implement a bonus model or variable remuneration to reward operators with the best performance. Often a simple reward can bring a huge return to the operation.

Learn more: glossary

Container Crane: Equipment that carries out the loading and unloading of containers on a vessel. It is made of a swing lance equipped with a rail that guides the container.
MHC: Mobile Harbour Crane, consists of a transport device with wheels for free movement in port areas, which is very versatile. It has a similar function to the Container Crane, but its productivity is lower.
RTG: Rubber Tyre Gantry, used for handling containers and suspended loads in the terminal. Through a lifting cable system, it is able to move any container, even if it is in the middle of the stack, without the need to move or transport other units.
Reach Stacker: Equipment used in the handling of containers in short distances, allowing stacking of up to 5 containers in storage.
Freight Forwarder: Individual or legal person who provides the shipping of third-party cargo. It usually acts on the shipper’s account and order

Although not exhaustive, given the particularity of each operation, these actions act on points commonly found in the daily management of port operations and also serve as insights to support the identification of new opportunities for improvement.

About the author

Bruno Denardin is a consultant at Visagio with expertise in Logistics and Supply Chain projects, Organisational Transformation, Zero Base Budget and Expense Reduction, Process Optimization and Operational Efficiency Increase.