In our first interview of 2021 of our exclusive series in partnership with Port Technology, INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier caught up with Oscar Pernia, Director of Digitalization and Automation at Terminal Investment Limited (TIL), to talk about his views of the future of our industry. As he is one of the industry’s most recognizable thought leaders, Oscar’s view of the challenges of today and the opportunities of tomorrow is a fitting start to our second year of 2038: Future Vision interviews.
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MW: We’re going to kick off by jumping straight into the year 2020. We learned at the beginning of our book, 2038, that the Port of Reykjavik is a fully automated terminal with limited on-site personnel. Given that we’ve been on the road to automation now for some 25 years, is this a possibility? And, if so, what are the key steps to getting there?
OP: In my experience, the road to automation must always include some kind of systematic framework. It starts with defining the processes at all levels and not only in operation, which is normally the only department we focus on. The supporting processes, like maintenance and IT, are becoming very different and sophisticated with automation as well.
With that component in place, what we need to attach to it is the workforce and organization, which must go hand in hand with defining processes, again, at all levels. Only when those components are defined and planned can we jump into the other components, systems, and their integration. After that comes the data, which is becoming more and more important in creating the core foundation required for automation to be effective because we need a clear definition of interfaces and data models to effectively complete the terminal system specification.
On a more general level, we have a lot of problems to solve to achieve operational excellence with automation, but also the overall framework of terminals needs to be safer, more secure, and more sustainable. This applies not only to the internal aspects I’ve been saying are relevant, but also to creating a new way of managing terminals and making them more transparent and sensitive assets for the supply chain. For example, the vessels can work toward consuming less fuel or reducing CO2 emissions, enabling a better planet. Those aspects are important, and automation will begin to empower them as its conception and results force us to focus on data, truly digitizing the terminal processes and their connection to the supply chain.
MW: You mentioned the need for terminals to be safer and more secure. I don’t often hear that at automation conferences. Currently, we spend a lot of time talking about ROI and IT implementation. Why are those two things, safety and security, added to your framework?
OP: Well, that is one of our main and fundamental objectives – safety always comes first. In terms of safety, automation is creating a more machine-driven work environment: fewer people in the yard, fewer and seamlessly connected people in the quay. Machines are connected, sensitive to thousands of signals, self-analyzing their performance and recording the specifics of each single container move. Unfortunately, we had a nonfatal accident in Valencia last year when a ship collided with a quay crane. In an automatic crane with remote operations, the potential safety impacts of that accident will be reduced.
That’s one aspect of safety. It has greater implications because when you systematize operations, you always shift the focus to the processes and the workforce so that everything is driven and well-integrated, from not only a system point of view but also a process point of view. As automation is bringing processes, workforce, systems, and data together, safety becomes an integrated objective of the overall terminal system function.
The other aspect, security, is about having clear traceability of the container and its movement within the terminal and having access to the different parameters of the cargo inside the container. In that sense, we can be more proactive and prescriptive, with special management for commodities that need to be managed in a more secure way, so the container is not exposed to any interaction with the human from vessel to quay and vice versa.
Those two aspects are important. I agree with you that they are not normally emphasized enough amid the confidence we have in automation because we focus only on the beautiful power of creating better efficiencies and saving costs.
MW: Is cybersecurity an element of that conversation that we should also be addressing when we talk about automation?
MW: Are any particular aspects of automation more prone to cybersecurity threats?
OP: With automation, we have more operational technology and more devices that can be “hacked,” so we need to carefully manage the vulnerability and the associated risks of increasing system complexity and dependency. The IT policies for automated terminals are much more sophisticated and need to be applied to the whole IT infrastructure and software applications. While we need to make sure that in an increasingly connected ecosystem, both from inside and outside, the extended scope of cybersecurity also covers third-party integrations such as Port Community Systems and other platforms connected to the terminal, meaning information technology and operation technology, we establish a secure and protected trend with the associated practices already fully embedded in our solution design.
Indeed, cybersecurity is a strong requirement, and not only a requirement but an area we need to focus on when we design the solution and later when we implement the solution and move into live operations. It is very important to include solution design and implementation but also the operational IT practices and specialized staff at terminals to ensure strict policy compliance and proactive monitoring.
MW: We’ve reached the year 2025. Many innovative technologies are discussed in 2038, with mid-2020s seeing a significant growth period for the ideas to take hold. What technologies, if any, do you see as being innovative and positioned to cause disruption in the maritime industry?
OP: In the current situation, the technology scale we have is really ahead of us, but in 2025, I certainly believe technologies like artificial intelligence or Digital Twins will have already created a quantum leap in the way we operate terminals, with a special focus on automated terminals where data is more available, higher quality, and much richer. But to get there, we have to resolve different challenges we have now.
You can compare the progress we made in automation and its utilization and leverage those technologies to create a meaningful impact on operational excellence. Those innovative technologies would make a difference, that’s for sure. Evolution in connectivity aspects is crucial. They’re progressing the physical part of cabling networks, passive networks, and wireless networks, while normal technologies like LTE or 5G need time to be adopted in industrial environments. The benefits they bring will change and ease our implementation of the solution, our solution design, or how we will frame the ecosystem. So that’s one part.
Related to the technology for connectivity, the assisting, system engineering part, which is about the interfaces and the integration patterns between software applications, there’s a big push for standardization. This also applies to utilizing open architectures to make the different solutions more connectable. Five years ago, there was no single vendor that offered an end-to-end solution to the terminal operator, meaning quay to gate, so we need to integrate several components. Along that path, the industry collectively worked at creating references, and a framework we can adopt from terminal to terminal will be fundamental. In 2025, this improved significantly and we stopped reinventing the wheel in every single project. Vendors became real partners for automation.
Another important technology area was the software applications, and especially how those will be supported by cloud computing. This will enable not only new and easy ways to deploy and integrate solutions, but also to create new paradigms, like centralized terminal management for planning and execution. From the progress made in 2025, I can certainly imagine a central control room that helps us manage the different berths and port rotations across terminals, but also the production control at those automated terminals and the human intervention to manage exceptions. It will make a lot of sense not only for terminal operators but also for carriers, and the technology is coming. Cloud computing will enable it, and the progress made in standardizing data flows and digitizing planning and execution processes will create the core foundation for the different systems at different stakeholders, enabling dynamic, collaborative decision-making.
The last one I’ll mention is the data as the main actor for the quantum leap we produced with artificial intelligence in our industry during the last five years. We have been talking about data for the last 10 years or more, but only during the last few years was the progress enough to create the digital core foundation to make data a fundamental actor in the design of our processes and, again, in our organization and the workforce. The new technologies, enabling new ways of doing analytics or operational decision management with real-time dashboards, did certainly impact the requirements for those systems and, more importantly, how we can evolve the processes and the workforce. From this point on, we can not only automate but truly re-engineer those processes and then the workforce so we can plan the next phase of automation with an inclusive and broader impact from artificial intelligence or Digital Twin technologies.
MW: You mentioned the word “integration” several times. Integration, in my mind, often goes hand in hand with the word “collaboration.” When we’re bringing together multiple, disparate systems, do we have collaboration in the industry now? What steps do we need to take to foster that, to reach the high level of integration you’re talking about?
OP: Yes, we do. We have collaboration, but it’s not enough because the system landscape is still very fragmented and there is no single vendor providing a ”one-stop-shop” automation solution, or helping us simplify and get uniformity in the design and implementation of associated solutions. We are always talking about the TOS markets, and I see very different solution setups from terminal to terminal, even with the same vendor and even within the same terminal operator. To integrate, more and more is required as the terminal ecosystem becomes much more than the TOS, and in terms of complexity and cost, there are other parties like Equipment Control Systems or Gate & Appointment Systems beginning to have the same relevance as the TOS.
Take, for example, the introduction of third-party applications for optimization modules: it can be very difficult, meaning that you need to add customized development for the interface itself. And with most TOS systems, these interfaces can’t be replicated from terminal to terminal easily, which is a big constraint. Then there are some initiatives, like TIC 4.0 or, more recently at the carrier level, DCSA, that are trying to empower interoperability between systems, and they focus on standardization of information components that enable a data model and API plan of approach, which certainly is the way to go if software suppliers effectively support us on that path.
We need to move toward these kinds of initiatives being effective and not just scratching the surface, creating an illusion regarding the existing complexity for real adoption and evolution on solution design and implementation practices. To summarize, we have collaboration, but it’s very high-level and not really tackling the fundamental problems of system integration. If you look at other industries, they are far ahead of us in terms of how they design, procure, implement, and test automation solutions (look at the adoption of international automation standards like ISA-95 as an example).
MW: It’s interesting that you brought up DCSA and TIC 4.0, because in 2038, we see that the data standard problem was solved in the mid-2020s. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that, as an industry, we can actually achieve that because it leads to a better overall outcome for everyone.
MW: The impact of technology is used as a framework in 2038 to look at many broader social, economic, environmental, and business trends. What trends do you think will shape the future, and what can be done to influence them today?
OP: Along with the technologies I mentioned before and the expected evolution of those, the current trends will continue. We need to make sure they are affecting the industry with a meaningful impact, not just marketing hype – and this covers a more connected and real-time supply chain, a more inclusive social and equal workforce, and the new competences established by digitalization and artificial intelligence among other broader trends like sustainability. In 2030, my expectation is that we will be more precise and aware about our impact and the growing importance of our focus beyond efficiency, and that everybody will much better understand why we need automation and the expected value from it.
Getting back to connectivity, I expect the combination of technologies like 5G, along with the broader application of system engineering practices and the capabilities brought by high-performance computing at the device level, including embedded applications, will completely change the way we implement Automated Terminals.
At a broader level and especially relevant for software applications and platforms, in 2030, the ecosystem will be seamless and involve many more stakeholders. The richer and real-time connections with carriers will create new paradigms for vessel planning, making it more dynamic and transparent, but also will create benefits at landside for a more end-to-end and door-to-door visibility with corporations that will need to cover the whole supply chain as much as possible. Platforms like TradeLens would be a norm at that time, and we will have an “API marketplace” available to truly develop optimization applications easier and with no dependency from legacy suppliers.
I’ll mention data again. We discussed the integration between the different applications, the standardization of information components in the language or protocol the system utilizes. That’s a basic requirement that we are still debating in 2020, but that will certainly change in the coming decade. It’s part of the approach to creating continuous improvement feedback loops for operational excellence, learning from past, better performances and looking ahead, making predictions part of basic decision-making.
Today, many different systems provide business intelligence (BI), but will need to have a data system of record that can support us end-to-end across the different departments and in connection with our customers. A centralized data repository is key to be able to truly make sense of the data and stop having the different departments analyzing operational outcomes in siloes from different and not-congruent analyses. Only from a well-managed and structured central data repository will we be able to capitalize our investment on intelligent technologies, meaning artificial intelligence or machine learning, which are fundamental actors of the future.
The landscape of artificial intelligence at terminals today is confusing because there is so much more that we can do compared with what has already been achieved. Nevertheless, I think we have some quick wins happening already at a machine level, such as predicting failures and improving maintenance and asset management. We don’t have to market those capabilities: they are happening in almost every terminal, but we also can’t forget that the broader application of artificial intelligence and its long-term enablement will depend on real impact on decision-making processes and the ability to connect the different time horizons and people on those, from the strategic to the tactical to real time.
On that path, of course, we will need to leverage the many fantastic C-level professionals at terminals to truly create an evolution in how decision-making is happening, and for that, we need much higher amounts and much better quality of data. We need to create the core foundation to enable that starting now, and it should cover multiple systems and sources of data not available or connectable today. I truly believe the terminal CEO in 2030 will fundamentally be an artificial intelligence algorithm.
MW: Maritime doesn’t exist in a bubble. As automation disrupts our industry, unions around the world are pushing back, much like the anti-techs in 2038. As an industry, how should we be addressing the impacts of automation on the human workers in our companies and organizations?
OP: This is a fundamentalist stream. Without automation, and even more with the new technologies coming, we run the risk of creating a useless generation. We have to think about the existing workforce and how stupid we would be not to leverage their experience and knowledge, but also about how we can introduce new competencies, such as managing data or controlling for the average performance behavior. This evolution certainly will need the introduction of new roles and competencies. Those new competencies and qualifications, for example, the ones connected to data science to manage data and algorithms, will be necessary to accomplish these goals, even in the short term, and it requires introducing them with effective training programs and with an inclusive approach to the existing workforce.
For example, within these objectives, a fundamental area is the dockers, the stevedoring site at ports. We, the terminal operators, need to analyze change management holistically and evaluate how automation can benefit them. We need to create, with them and for them, a future that does not exclude them, but one that also improves the working environment in terms of efficiency, safety, and sustainability.
Dockers are fully aware of the required evolution and adaptation on their side, and we need their active involvement, but on that path, we also need to find a way to keep their role relevant while truly empowering competitiveness, which certainly will include significant changes. Otherwise, why should they support our automation strategies if they are becoming irrelevant? On that path, regarding the role of terminal operator, which is fundamental, the regulatory frameworks and employment policies used to have strength but are now very different from country to country. They will need to evolve significantly, maybe at an international level. Also, we need to make the overall system across the planet more fair and allow everyone opportunities for automation, which of course includes social inclusion. In Europe, North America, and Asia, this is happening, but what about Africa or South America? We need an international push to align the regulatory frameworks and employment policies, and for automation implementation to become equalized across countries and regions. Otherwise, the overall impact of automation will not happen, or will be very limited (amplifying differences between ports at different regions).
MW: Is there a body inside the maritime industry that can help facilitate those conversations at a regulatory level?
OP: Not that I know of. Normally, we deal with the national frameworks, meaning national port entities and port authorities at every port, and they’re very different from country to country. Even in the European Union, you’ll find important differences between northern Europe and southern Europe. Even in the same country, the translation of existing frameworks to local levels differs significantly. There is no international regulatory framework that establishes basic guidelines to protect and train the workforce and align it with the technological evolution. On top of that, the often-syndical fragmentation is only creating concerns for terminal operators and deviating the focus from effective collaboration. However, I see that happening in other industries, such as automobiles, with natural friction but significant evolution during the last 20 years, and I expect our industry to follow that path
MW: It seems like adapting technology and humans side by side is not a problem isolated to AI, which we addressed in 2038, but also extends to many of the technologies that we’ll see come out and proliferate in society and definitely in our industry. We’ve reached the year 2038, and sadly that means we must draw our interview to a close. What’s the one thing our readers should take away from this interview?
OP: First, by 2038, the trends and technologies will have created the core foundation to make our operation more efficient, safe, sustainable, and secure through a seamlessly connected ecosystem. Second, there will be fewer differences across the workforce, and being a COO or crane driver will not be that different because we will all be working in an ecosystem that empowers every single role for the benefit of all, and everyone at the terminal will be seamlessly integrated with the mentioned technologies.
Finally, maybe we can create a pleasant memory. I still remember the stories from my first managers in the terminals when they told me that in the mid-80s, they used to plan vessels with stickers on big paper bay plans. I think in 2038, I want to be telling my son and daughter the story of how we work today in a similar way, as a nice memory. If you look at 1954, when Malcom McLean introduced the container, this industry did evolve but didn’t change in the fundamentals. It’s time to produce another real quantum leap. The global forces and the technology are in place.
My motto every morning at work is to truly be part of our industry evolution – I want to ensure our industry is very different at that time, but to get there, we have a lot of work to do in the many areas we discussed today – and there is no time to waste!
MW: Oscar, thank you very much for your time, and I sincerely hope we can tell our children in the year 2038 about the old times of using technology like computers. I hope they laugh just the way I smiled and had a chuckle at your sticker comment.
OP: Absolutely. We need to work for that, but I’m sure we will get there.
Lastly, I would like to express my appreciation for the work INFORM is doing to promote the fundamental role of Women in Maritime. I have learned and continue to learn a lot from the female colleagues I have worked and do work with. In my personal case, I would be able to do nothing without the support and love of my wife, Rosa. So, thanks to INFORM for your emphasis. Please continue.
MW: Thanks so much for your time, and I wish you all the best.
OP: Thank you, Matthew.
Who’s Oscar Pernia?
Dr. Oscar Pernia is Director of Automation & Digitalization for TIL, the Container Terminal business unit for MSC. Based in Geneva HQ, his focus covers Process Engineering, System Integration, Algorithms & Data Science, and Applied Innovation competencies. As such, he is the Technical Lead for Automated Terminal Design & Deployment as well as for different strategic initiatives to empower efficiency, safety, and sustainability through automation/digitalization. His education was in telecommunications engineering, and he holds an industrial engineering PhD, where he focused on Algorithms Design & Simulations applied to Marine Operations Optimization. During the last 20 years, he accumulated extensive experience in container shipping, covering technology solutions across all processes in the ocean supply chain, with a specific focus on ports and terminals. Oscar is happily married to Rosa and they have two kids, Catalina and Oscar v2.0.
What is 2038: Future Visions?
2038: Future Visions is a series of interviews with leading maritime logistics professionals who share their view of what our industry will look like in the year 2038. It is brought to you in partnership with Port Technology. 2038: Future Visions builds on the award-winning book 2038: A Smart Port Story, which INFORM published in 2019.
What is 2038: A Smart Port Story?
2038: A Smart Port Story explores the terminal of the future and the intricacies of technology and its impact on both the port industry and society. Join Douglas as he unravels the mystery around an incident at the Port of Reykjavik, which sees an AGV collide with a human, leaving their life hanging perilously in the balance.
Haven’t read 2038: A Smart Port Story yet? Get started with Part 1 today!
More from the World of 2038 – The Athena Interviews
The Athena Interviews is a series run in 2019 in which INFORM’s Matthew Wittemeier interviewed Athena, the main AI character from 2038: A Smart Port Story, about a broad range of topics surrounding AI. In an interactive video format, readers/viewers are introduced to Athena as together they explore thought-provoking questions about the future of logistics, technology, and AI.
Missed the beginning of The Athena Interviews? You can pick it up from the start at PTI Exclusive: Athena Q&A Part 1.