The global shipping industry is coming under increased scrutiny to improve port turnaround efficiencies, reduce overall expenses, and mitigate climate impact through digitalization.
To participate in the digitalization process of the port of Houston, PortXchange and the Greater Houston Port Bureau entered into a five-year collaboration agreement last year to decrease port turnaround time and increase the efficiency of regional port calls.
In this interview, Christine Schlenker, vice president at the Greater Houston Port Bureau, answers key questions related to the implementation of PilotTracker, a real-time pilot scheduling and vessel movement information platform, and the impact it has had on the port community.
PortXchange: What were some of the challenges you have identified at the Greater Houston Port Bureau?
Christine: The Greater Houston Port Bureau is a membership-driven organization focused entirely on the maritime industry. We have about 250 companies, and most of them are along the Houston Ship Channel. These members range from shipping lines to terminals, pilot associations, port authorities, and other channel users that rely on the commerce that comes through like attorneys and banks, etc.
At the Greater Houston Port Bureau, we do everything from advocacy to networking, and efficiency projects. We provide what the port community needs to operate more efficiently, and more productively to bring more maritime business to Houston.
We manage a major vessel movement database for all the ship traffic in Texas. One of the projects we’ve been working on is efficiency. In our efficiency committee, we identified about 40 different items that would benefit the Houston Ship Channel community to improve the efficiency of vessel movements.
These projects range from better document control to standardizing processes. But the project that came to the top – that was dominant – was data sharing: some kind of platform to help increase the transparency of vessel movements.
PortXchange offered a solution called Synchronizer, in use at the Port of Rotterdam. We trialed it from 2020 to 2021, and it’s still in progress in Houston. This was the main reason the Port Bureau decided to form a collaborative partnership with PortXchange.
PortXchange: What makes the port of Houston so complex, and why is PilotTracker a good fit to ease that complexity?
Christine: PilotTracker is the main platform that we are working with right now. It is a new version of a previous platform that was used in Houston for 15 years, called Harborlights. Harborlights was an initiative that started about 20 years ago by the Houston Pilots.
At that time, the Pilots needed to move to a digitized method for dispatching. They developed internally a tool called Harborlights to do just that! Later they developed an end-user version that was accessible to members of the port community. It provided dispatch information, pilot information, dock information, and transit information, which gave everybody the same view of a transit that was happening on the Houston Ship Channel.
The port of Houston is the largest port in the U.S. by export tonnage, overall waterborne tonnage, and the largest container port in the Gulf of Mexico. We have the deepest draft and brown water vessel movements in the U.S. There are about 8,000 vessel arrivals for deep draft vessels in Houston per year. If you look at the top East Coast ports and the top West Coast ports combined, Houston matches the number of those four top ports.
It’s a large economic driver, not just for the city of Houston, but for the state of Texas, the U.S., and globally. We are one of the top global petrochemical ports in the world, and we really look at the port of Houston region as a whole as one of the top manufacturing areas in the U.S.
PortXchange: Why are data transparency and collaboration crucial for the Houston Ship Channel?
Christine: An interesting element of the port of Houston is the complexity of the Houston Ship Channel. The Houston Ship Channel is 52 miles long. The port of Houston spans the upper 25 miles of this waterway and has a couple of hundred docks throughout its many terminals.
The port of Houston has almost all of the commodity types you can think of being traded here. Like any other port region, we have some unique characteristics, and part of it is the shape of our Houston Ship Channel. Although it is relatively narrow, it still allows for two-way traffic.
We are currently undergoing an expansion project called Project 11 that will widen the Houston Ship Channel to 700 feet in some places. However, there is still always a need for efficiency projects outside of infrastructure investment.
One of the best ways we found to do that is through data sharing and collaboration. Data allows people to make better decisions with what they already have so there’s no additional infrastructure, equipment, or asset investment needed. It’s simply better information and better decisions.
Therefore, having data transparency, sharing information, and having visibility about schedules make a large difference in planning and in making decisions about what each member of the community needs to do to have efficient operations.
PortXchange: What were some benefits of using PilotTracker as a platform to get real-time pilot schedules?
Christine: As I mentioned earlier, the port of Houston had been using the Harborlights real-time pilot schedule data platform for fifteen years, and it was aging out. It’s very difficult to maintain an in-house developed platform and to continue providing the services that our users need to grow their businesses and meet the demands of modern shipping.
In order to continue offering a high-performing real-time pilot schedule platform to the port community, the Port Bureau knew we needed to partner with an established software provider. Since we had already been working with PortXchange for almost two years on the Synchronizer project, we knew that we’d be able to have a good relationship with PortXchange.
The Port Bureau partnered with PortXchange to develop a new platform called PilotTracker. PilotTracker shows real-time pilot schedule information with a lot of enhancements compared to what we had in the past.
Working with PortXchange to develop and then implement PilotTracker was very straightforward. The key thing that a data provider needs is to have a good data connection, but PortXchange could help us with that, too. The end-users had some input on what fields to make available; we had several committee meetings to make sure that our users in the Houston port community had input into the final product and that it was providing the services that they needed.
PortXchange: Why is PilotTracker a good first step for port digitalization?
Christine: PilotTracker is a good first step for port digitalization because it’s easy to implement, and it has a strong, immediate impact on the port community.
PilotTracker shows all the pilot information: actual boarding time, the offboarding time, when the pilot was ordered as well as dock and terminal information such as the draft of the dock, the draft of the vessel, and more detailed vessel information.
Real-time pilot schedule information is immediately valuable to all port users; from line handlers and agents to terminals, all can find value in this real-time pilot schedule information. Working with PortXchange to implement PilotTracker is a fairly simple process for the data provider. It’s quick, it’s simple – all you need to do is provide the data, and the community now has access to the information they need to perform their operations more efficiently and more effectively.
With the schedule data provided by PilotTracker, all the users in a port can make the best operational decisions for whatever type of business they are in, whether it is mooring companies, tugs, terminals, or agents. If they are all working from one true source of data – in this case, the Houston Pilot’s data – they can approximate just-in-time operations. This is a good step towards that activity.