5 Questions with Richard Willis, Port Solutions Ltd.

One of our all-time favorite maritime consultants and technical operations experts, Richard Willis, takes us up the latest edition of our “5 Questions” series, where we ask five thought-provoking questions to influencers in the shipping and logistics industry. It helps all of us to better understand their perspectives, trends they see, and what we ought to know.

Richard hails from the U.K. and has been running Port Solutions Ltd. for the last six years. Prior to founding his consultancy, he spent a significant amount of time within the maritime industry. From customer service at SeaLand to his consulting days at a terminal operating system provider, he has the right background to truly excel when it comes to terminal operations, technology, and port consultancy.


1. Which current technology trend do you feel have a potential to make a huge impact in the shipping and maritime industry?

Recently, in our industry, there is a lot of noise about new concepts, which can be difficult for the average small port manager to grasp, contextualise and make use of. The key issue is to make these tools and concepts more relevant and practically useful to solve problems within the terminal operation. The port industry is traditional and relatively slow moving to adopt new technologies, for good reason as large complex organisms, with many critical parts, a wholesale change in process or technology can bring disaster.

But, traction is gaining momentum and lightening the IT overhead within terminals is bringing cost savings and increased dynamism, especially at smaller sites in less-developed countries where the use of SaaS/cloud hosting is valuable. More generally, terminal operators need to bring together different data sources available in their equipment and system ecosystem (their local ‘IoT’) to cross-analyse, measure and use the results to drive improvement (‘big data’). But this is really challenging due to the competition and general lack of openness between software/hardware suppliers – an open and sharing mindset will provide benefits for terminal operators and, eventually therefore, suppliers too.

2. What are some of the more common high-level recommendations you find yourself making with regards to the terminals you advise? What activities you recommend tend to have the biggest impact?

Despite every terminal being different, there are common echoes everywhere. Application of technology to an operation is only one step – the holistic business improvement in using the value that TOS and other systems can bring is always a challenge that terminals struggle with. Use the tools available to drive the business, which means engaging motivating and training staff – a common area for improvement.

Measurement is vital, with many terminals still relying on gut instinct of the duty manager and gathering very few data-driven performance measures. In such a complex system, a range of measures and data sources should be put together to give a performance overview, which should be shared and communicated at every level, to bring forth more team spirit. This loops back to the data-collecting issues mentioned before.

3. What are some key factors that you have uncovered when it comes to ‘successful’ terminal adoption of new technology and related change management?

A vital approach is to understand fully the risks and effort involved in deploying a TOS (or VBS, PCS etc) in a terminal. Quite often this is under-estimated, leading to management frustration, delays and sometimes failed implementations.

An eyes-open view should lead to a phased approach to roll-out the system in layers, mitigating risk (especially in a working terminal) and managing the vital staff engagement, resolving issues and bedding-in before increasing the level of complexity at the next layer.

Particularly in the period after implementation, backsliding and workarounds can creep in, leading to reduced efficiency and loss of ROI in the new system; regular audits, problem-solving and sometimes re-training may be needed in the first year or two to maintain robust quality.

4. As a modern TOS provider, we loved your whitepaper on choosing a Terminal Operating System. Other than hiring you and your team at Port Solutions, what would be your best advice to terminal managers when picking a terminal operating system?

Understand the business case and objectives of the TOS project and maintain drive towards these goals. ‘Getting a TOS’ is not really an objective – it’s just a tool to drive customer satisfaction, container control, security etc…

Document your vital requirements, but be prepared to modify them to suit the solution that you prefer when shopping around, but don’t get too distracted with shiny new features you may not use (you can usually upgrade later if you want). When choosing a TOS vendor, be sure to visit or talk to existing customers to understand the real-life experience.

Vendors rarely supply a true implementation service, beyond “Super User” training and technical support; form a project delivery team within your terminal early (at requirements/selection stage) and empower these people to make the change to hit those objectives. Otherwise, hire in expertise to help you achieve this.

5. What are your thoughts when it comes to post-Panamax vessels? Lars Jensen recently shared his beliefs on “Mega Vessels”. He sees a major gap when it comes to small and medium-sized terminals and their supply chain partners. How do you see vessel size trending? And what do you think the implications of these advancements may be in the medium to longer term?

Vessel size is a major issue for terminal operators, creating peaks of intense cargo handling but with less frequency. At medium-sized terminals this is particularly difficult, sometimes lacking enough STS to service bigger vessels in a reasonable window and the yard space to manage the peaks of cargo storage. This causes ripples through all the supply chain.

It seems the peak size of vessels may have been reached (hopefully) and the cascade of large vessels down to the spoke routes continues. There is a balance to be found between the liner needs for an economy of scale, against the physical limitations of ports, with the client demands for regular/frequent services that is perhaps still settling out. The ongoing consolidation and large alliances will have a major role in cementing this equilibrium. The fierce competition between terminals to accommodate ever-larger vessels has to have a ceiling.

Greater understanding of the role of the terminal within the supply chain is important, and successful in many places, to try and smooth out these congestion peaks and pass through the cargo as quickly as possible. Reducing the impact of Customs, admin processes and local transport issues are all vital ingredients in reducing dwell time, thus increasing the capacity of smaller terminals to cope with larger vessel calls.