The Next Transformational Technology for Terminal Operations: Simplified and Integrated Systems

Tags: Logistics I.T., Ports, Logistics, Technology , Logistics Solutions Providers

Tom Van Buskirk is Vice President, Product Engineering, Tideworks Technology, 206-382-4470

The terminal operations sector we serve is in constant motion.

The tools and systems necessary to run marine and rail facilities are vast and disparate. Once upon a time, if one of those systems failed, you’d pick up a clipboard, record the tasks, and calculate deltas. When everything was back up and running, you’d sit at a workstation, performing an end-of-the-day batch data upload.

Today? Not so much. In terminal systems, as in many systems that we use regularly today, small failures often lead to dramatic business impacts. Today’s systems are large and when not integrated intelligently, they are unwieldy and vulnerable to failure.

What creates these kinds of failures? For software systems in general, the factors are many, and varied. As most software systems grow and become more complex, they become more challenging and costly to maintain.

As a result, the software industry has keenly recognized that the solution to combat complexity is to break large, monolithic systems down into smaller systems (or services), each of which is concrete, purposeful, and cohesive with each other. The days of siloed business system functionality are over.

If you consider the systems leveraged by terminal operations today—everything from vehicle/fleet management, remote crane management, terminal operating systems, gate operation, position detection, asset management, and many others—you’ll see these systems are highly integrated.

To be clear, this structure isn’t necessarily by design. Market demand for technological solutions, alongside organic growth by existing vendors in terminal operations, has precipitated significant investment in software and hardware systems that have evolved into myriad potential product offerings and vendors offering them.

Human tendency would be to simplify and consolidate these systems because this looks too complex. But modern software architecture would say the opposite. Instead, trends would say: Simplify each system into its core purpose, reduce overlap between them, and provide a standardized means of integrating the systems using APIs (Application Program Interfaces, which specify how the software components of this system should interact). Doing so will improve testability (and therefore reliability) of each system and will best serve the end customer by allowing each to grow independently of the others.

Therefore, the ability to successfully integrate across systems—generated in part by the large proliferation of these terminal systems—will make or break many companies.

The Key to Integration

So, how do we make integration easier, more cost effective, and yield higher quality results? The short answer—we simplify and we standardize.

We simplify complex integrations that require back-and-forth instruction sharing to instead think about those systems as black boxes with one another. Each system is agnostic to what system(s) might be calling its APIs, and is agnostic to what system(s) might be consuming event data it is exposing.

We standardize each system such that it has intuitive interactions through standard APIs. Even more ideally, like-providers within a single (less complex) subsystem can conform to similar APIs and allow other features/functionality they expose to be their means of market differentiation.

The ability to integrate systems really shouldn’t be a driving factor in vendor selection decisions—the features, alignment to business need, capabilities, services, support, of that vendor should be the driving factor.

It is incumbent upon technology providers to plan for and incorporate integration strategies into overall product offerings. The sustainable path calls for systems that adapt with growth and change, including the eventual introduction of more systems into the operations mix.

The best technology partners serve as your guide across the technology landscape, seeking to be more than a vendor providing software solutions, but also a thought leader, driving innovation for how the industry itself may choose to adapt software to meet the customers’ collective demands.

As long as business is asked to do more with less, there will continually be a call for more innovation. And as long as there’s a call for more innovation, there will be a necessity for more integration.

The objective is simple: to offer secure, consistent, tested APIs allowing customers to take full advantage of technologies available today and those that will be available tomorrow, with a smaller price tag and faster uptime.