The Port of Antwerp is spearheading an ambitious new project to transform global supply chains through the use of new and emerging technologies. Brian Dixon reports
With globalisation continuing apace, supply chains are proving ever-more lengthy, complex and difficult to manage. To overcome this, 36 companies and institutions led by the Port of Antwerp have come together, under the auspices of the ePIcenter project, to facilitate the seamless transport of goods around the world by exploiting a raft of technologies, from blockchain to artificial intelligence (AI), as well as single windows, the Galileo satellite-based navigation system and the Copernicus Earth observation programme.
Set to run for a period of 42 months with a budget of around €7.5m funded primarily by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 initiative, the project brings together players from a broad range of fields, including vessel routing and propulsion, Hyperloop vactrains, marine wildlife research, autonomous vehicles, the Physical Internet and synchromodal logistics.
“This diverse group of researchers is supported by major logistics and supply chain companies and leading Universities and policy experts to ensure that ePIcenter delivers practical (as well as innovative) solutions that global business can really use. Many of the consortium members are based in Europe, but the involvement of partners from North America, South America and China is a major benefit and will accelerate the progress of the work,” a Port of Antwerp spokesperson says, describing this “one-of-a-kind” project as unprecedented in terms of both scope and ambition.
A 21st century solution for an age-old problem
Among other things, ePIcenter seeks to develop interoperable cloud-based software tools and methodologies that employ AI to facilitate closer co-operation between ports, logistics companies, shippers and authorities. As a result, it is hoped, these key actors will be able to react in a more agile way to market developments and political volatility.
“Twenty-first century consumers still wish for cheaper and more readily available goods, but at the same time are increasingly aware of the environmental and social consequences. Innovations in transport, such as hyperloops, autonomous/robotic systems and new last-mile solutions, optimised with AI algorithms can help to meet these aspirations,” they continue.
For example, ePIcenter will look to reduce fuel use and ergo emissions not only by encouraging the use of more environmentally-benign transport modes, but also by making each mode intrinsically more efficient. At the same time, reducing long-distance movements by trucks and smoothing the profile of arrivals at ports will reduce congestion and waiting/turnaround times while also increasing safety.
Indeed, one major focus of the project will be synchromodality, viz the ready ability of a shipper to switch from one mode to another to achieve enhanced cost and environmental performance. This concept has already been explored by MJC², a UK-based developer of planning and scheduling software and ePIcenter partner, in a number of previous initiatives, such as SYNCHRO-NET and E-FREIGHT. However, the ePIcenter project will widen the scope of its use to enable even more complex networks and operations to be addressed.
“The key point is that synchromodality also offers industry a tangible benefit in terms of cost reduction and increased resilience. This means that industry stakeholders will have a natural interest in adopting the relevant technologies and solutions, which will lead to the wider benefits targeted by the European Commission, such as low-emission logistics, congestion reduction and increased quality of life for citizens,” the spokesperson states.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the technical challenges facing the project are large and multiple. Synchromodal logistics, for example, poses significant mathematical problems, with even the relatively simple task of finding the best multimodal route for a container through the global logistics network presenting “a huge computational challenge due to the vast number of possible routes”. Similarly, control systems for autonomous vehicles, green ships and new technologies, such as Hyperloop, are also “very much at the leading edge of research”.
Then there is the issue of data sharing, something that is “absolutely crucial” to the effective use and deployment of such digital technologies as AI and the Internet of Things (IoT). While all types of players within the highly diverse transport and logistics sector have access to a considerable amount of data, sharing it “is very fragmented” at best as commercial considerations make companies generally reluctant to give other actors access to this potentially sensitive information. To overcome this, the project will thus seek to develop suitable platforms able to guarantee the necessary confidentiality through inter alia different layers of visibility.
Despite its European Commission funding, the ePIcenter project will maintain a global focus, with the Ports of Antwerp and Montreal, for instance, working together to develop the first transcontinental cyber-secure trade lane. Similarly, the project’s participants are also keen to see their work adopted by both developed and developing nations alike to increase the efficiency of global trade and connectivity. Moreover, the fruits of the project “will be available to all actors in the supply chain, not just those in the consortium, whether through available resulting products or supply chain efficiencies”.