Optimising a ship’s port call process may not be the ultimate solution to tackling the climate change crisis, but according to guidelines from the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and its Global Industry Alliance to Support Low Carbon Shipping (Low Carbon GIA), it has real potential to cut down emissions while bringing savings and more efficiencies to the entire supply chain.

Published earlier this year, the Just In Time (JIT) Arrival Guide includes a series of recommendations that will help stakeholders reduce anchorage time, optimise sailing speeds and modernise a set of procedures that date all the way back to the sailing years. It also suggests that operational and contractual reforms will make ships arrive ‘just in time’ for their call.

It may sound like a no-brainer but, as two IMO technical advisers explain, a number of deep-rooted inefficiencies have remained unsolved for decades, costing money to the industry, polluting waters and compromising safety.

Changing an inefficient process

When calling at a port, ships often travel at high speed to reach a destination, only to find out, upon their arrival, that they have to wait hours, days or even weeks before their designated berth is available. On average, 9% of this waiting time is spent on anchorage. This is often because ports tend to have a first-come, first-served policy.

In addition, Minglee Hoe, project technical analyst for the IMO-Norway GreenVoyage2050 Project, explains that a vessel only finds out the timing of when it gets into berth some 30 nautical miles in advance, so when it is already very close to the port.

“A ship typically has no clue when the bunker barge is going to arrive,” she says. “There are a lot of practices in this conservative industry where things just continue to operate as they are and there isn’t that real driver to change it because if nothing is broken, why would anyone fix it?”

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According to Astrid Dispert, project technical manager for the GreenVoyage2050 Project, this is the basis behind the JIT Arrival Guide. “Even the simplest things, like how a ship calls at the port, are still not figured out,” she says. “There are huge inefficiencies in the system […] and we have been looking into why this is actually happening in the 21st century, why ships don’t know exactly when their parking slot is available and how we can improve the situation.”

Contractual and operational barriers

The Low Carbon GIA has identified two main types of barriers – contractual and operational – standing in the way of Just In Time’s successful implementation. “From a contractual point of view, there are some charter party clauses [in ships’ contracts] that don’t allow, in some cases, the captain to reduce speed,” explains Dispert. “So if you’re operating a bulker or a tanker ship, if you want to reduce or adjust your speed to arrive into the port just in time when your berth is available, you’re actually in breach of contract.”

A clause that’s been in place since the sailing days – when orders needed to be received as quickly as possible – this provision continues to remain in force in the bunker and tanker sectors, though not in the container segment.

Meanwhile, on the operational side, barriers to adopting JIT effectively boil down to communication (or the lack thereof). “At the moment there is no frequent up-to-date exchange of information between the ships, ports, terminals and all the service providers, and only if you really manage for them to speak, you can actually enable JIT,” she explains. “This is not so much because of technology, which we think is there, but a case of organising everyone to communicate and speak the same language.”

The exchange of data therefore needs to be harmonised and standardised. At the same time, adds Hoe, “the data owners need to be willing to give that kind of information, share it and update it frequently as the ship comes closer, which is not happening yet”.

Getting stakeholders on board

While not mandatory, the Low Carbon GIA’s guidance is hoping to involve the broadest range of industry players possible. As they look into the guide’s future steps, both Dispert and Hoe stress that stakeholders are increasingly eager to decrease carbon emissions, a target that they hope will drive many to adopt JIT.

“With the worsening of climate change, there is much more focus on digitalisation and decarbonisation as well as a greater emphasis on what each player can now do,” says Hoe. “So there is more drive now than ever to look into innovative ways to reduce emissions and JIT provides one solution of how that can be achieved.”

Dispert believes that the industry will be convinced by the cost-benefit ratio that implementing JIT offers, making it a “win-win” for everyone. “JIT doesn’t involve a huge investment into new fuels and technologies, it’s a fairly low investment and it’s more about coordinating operations so there is a lot of attention to make this happen,” she says.

A key to successfully rolling it out, however, will be a triangular collaboration between the port, the terminal and ships. “A lot of [the port call] timestamps are moved from one stakeholder to the other. The ship, when receiving information from the terminal on when the berth is available, contacts the port authority which dictates the fairway of ships coming in and out, deals with pilot and tugs and informs the ship,” she says. “So you can see that if there is one delay, the whole operation can go wrong and JIT is really about making this triangular communication happen.”

Learning from examples in the industry

The JIT Arrival Guide may still be in its early stages but a few ports across the world have already successfully managed to optimise their call procedures. As Hoe and Dispert explain, two such hubs are the Australian city of Newcastle and Singapore.

“The Port of Newcastle used to have an anchorage area so it had a lot of ships sitting at anchor waiting to get into berth [when a recent] major accident actually drove change,” she comments. This persuaded Newcastle to put in place a system whereby information is constantly exchanged and vessels are required to adjust their estimated time of arrivals to avoid waiting at anchorage.

“This shows that optimising how a ship calls to port also has a massive impact not only on the environment but also safety because anchorage areas that are not organised [increase the risk of] bad weather collisions,” she adds.

As for the port of Singapore, Hoe says that its container segment has been operating JIT for a while courtesy of the fact that operations are more centralised. “One of the main reasons why it’s been much easier to implement it in Singapore is that their nautical services, tugs and pilots are all operated by the same body, whereas in other ports you have multiple tug operators and pilot companies that all need to come together,” she explains.

This represents a useful example for the IMO Low Carbon GIA, which is now looking into the next stages of its JIT work.

Future steps

“At the moment, timestamps, locations and other types of data are not consistently defined,” explains Dispert. “So the IMO is currently working on incorporating new timestamps into the compendium that is being managed by the Facilitation Committee and there is work being done on the data harmonisation and standardisation.”

Looking ahead, she adds that the IMO and Low Carbon GIA have been working to put together a concept for the rollout of JIT, from the desktop work that’s been done over the last year to getting stakeholders to understand the problem and coming up with practical ways to implement the system across the container shipping sector.

In addition, the alliance is seeking ways to expand its reach to more ports and terminals, making JIT as global as possible. “In the nearer term, we’ll be commissioning a study to look into the emission reduction potential for the container shipping sector,” concludes Dispert. “We understand how long ships wait at anchorage but we need information on what’s the real emission impact this could have if all containers shifted to JIT operations. In parallel, we’re also continuing to work on the contractual side of things for bulkers and tankers.”