Digital Twins to Improve Efficiency by Forecasting Upcoming Bottle-Necks

digital-twin-port-logistics-blog-photo-akquinetHistory of simulation in ports

Simulation technology has been used in the branch of ports and terminals since the 80ies of the last century for terminal layout planning and rough operational strategies. It became a standard methodology for answering questions, which are occurring during the various phases of a terminal:


Planners and terminal operators are not only looking at Greenfield terminals, also Brownfield ones (existing terminals with re-organisation or extension needs) are analysed using this technology to find the optimal mixture of equipment and layout decisions. E.g. Transnet’s Capacity Planning Group is checking each investment request from any of their South African terminals and in complex situation they simulate to secure the decision.

Beginning with the development of first fully automated terminals in the 90ies (ECT/Rotterdam, CTA/Hamburg) also emulation technology was implemented in this branch, resulting in Virtual Terminals, which provide test beds for the terminal Operation Systems (TOS) and for the start-up of terminals. In this case the simulation model of the terminal is directly connected to a test-instance of the TOS. In this way strategy improvements are tested before going live on the real terminal.

Digital Twin: What does that mean?

Abdulmotaleb El Saddik defines:

“A digital twin is a digital replica of a living or non-living physical entity. By bridging the physical and the virtual world, data is transmitted seamlessly allowing the virtual entity to exist simultaneously with the physical entity.”

This means, the Digital Twin consists of three parts: The physical product, the virtual product, and the connection between the two products.

With the demand of more and more reliable and increased productivity and efficiency at terminals, caused by bigger vessels and higher throughput requests from the shipping lines, terminal operators asked for innovations in the software driven process optimization. Based on digitization, driven by more and more data generated by sensors and more sophisticated EDI systems, the idea of using digital twins for terminals was born.

In this case

  • the physical product is the real container terminal,
  • the virtual product is the simulation model, called Virtual Terminal
  • all state changes on the real terminal are sent to the Virtual Terminal and in this way the state of the simulation is updated according to the real life at the terminal (Virtual Terminal IT solution).
Applications of Digital Twins at terminals

Applications of Digital Twins at terminals

Three potential applications of this technology are:

  1. Calibrating the simulation model by analysing the behaviour of the real world
    By listening to the real world the behaviour is analysed and changes are recognised. Thus the parameters of the real objects (e.g. productivity of manned devices à learning curve) are evaluated and these changes are updated in the emulators of the objects to be more precise for future simulation Analysis
  2. Re-act on exceptions happening in the real world
    If an exception occurs (e.g. crane breakdown), the planner has to react very fast (e.g. define new crane split). He may test the new strategy by fast simulation (Preview) and potential bottle-necks will be shown. Thus the planner will pro-actively (before they occur) optimise his strategy
  3. Automated check of the current plan
    A preview module is automatically started in predefined intervals to forecast the future operation. Predefined thresholds are compared with the simulation results and productivity/efficiency lags may be identified in advance. Especially the check of productivity figures (e.g. planned end of operation at the vessel) may be done and differences may be automatically sent to the planner or shown on the screen.

This technology may support terminal operators to increase terminal’s efficiency by a mind-change in operational processes: Instead of monitoring the current operation only and re-acting on bottle-necks coming up, terminal’s control staff will in the future be informed about potential bottlenecks by the digital twin.

By Holger Schütt, managing director akquinet port consulting

(Saddik, A. El (April 2018). “Digital Twins: The Convergence of Multimedia Technologies”. IEEE MultiMedia. 25 (2): 87–92. doi:10.1109/MMUL.2018.023121167. ISSN 1070-986X)


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