Automating effort: Improving the efficiency of ports with computerised support

Port automation and the modernisation of freight handling capacity in Oman is keeping pace with large development projects at Duqm and Sohar. Improvements in operational performance are the essential incentive to automate port container terminals, making them more productive and allowing for increased quay use and yard densities that result in a better use of available space. Automation also makes it possible to reduce human intervention in industrial activities, resulting in the standardisation of performance and service levels, the elimination of uncertainty in response times, and increased safety and security for port personnel.

However, despite the clear benefits, automating a container terminal is an expensive proposition, requiring a large capital investment for acquiring solutions and for training human resources. Oman has streamlined costs in implementation by introducing automating technologies not as retrofit, but in greenfield developments at Sohar Port in Terminal C, and at Duqm, where port facilities remain under construction.


At a social level, the automation of container terminals in Oman has reduced direct human intervention in operations and will result in a loss of some employment opportunities for port employees or stevedores. However, sector managers also expect that employee numbers will remain fairly stable in an automated or semi-automated port, but that the workforce will transition to higher-skilled positions requiring a higher level of training. “The basic reaction of people to port automation is to consider the impact on employment, but in the end it is actually serving Omani objectives,” Reggy Vermeulen, Duqm Port Company’s CEO, told OBG. “If you have semi-automated terminals, instead of having truck drivers and crane operators, you have IT engineers and more qualified resources. There is a nearly 1:1 relationship. So, overall your terminal is much more efficient, you employ more skilled workers than unskilled workers, and the overall concept is beneficial,” he added.

One downside to automation of a terminal is the potential for a temporary drop in regular levels of operational performance and efficiency during instrumentation, when equipment is installed and control and supervision systems, data-gathering systems, and real-time software applications are brought on-line. When implementing commercial automation solutions it is thus important to consider the particular needs of the port in question with respect to the level of automation sought, and current level of development. In Oman, this varies significantly at different container terminals. With respect to the automation of information flows using interface, communications and information management software systems, every port in the sultanate relies on technologies and tools that can automate processes to a certain extent.

Automation At Sohar

As lines from Asia begin to make more direct calls to Sohar, and the size of the container vessels docking at the port continues to increase, modernisation and efficiency are being prioritised in development strategies. The completion of Terminal C at Oman International Container Terminal (OICT) June 2016 inaugurated a new operations control centre and advanced remote control crane centre. New technologies in both facilities are designed to expedite turnaround times through automated loading and unloading systems, which is an important consideration in light of record growth in container throughput at Sohar over the past two years.

The expansion and modernisation effort has equipped OICT to remotely operate four recently installed post-Panamax quayside cranes capable of handling more frequent direct calls from the largest vessels in the world, including the latest class of mega-container ships with capacity of 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). In addition to greater efficiencies realised in automated loading and unloading systems, OICT has also introduced an automated truck appointment system aimed at reducing wait times and avoiding unnecessary fuel consumption. The new communications software schedules container truck arrival times at the terminal through direct contact with the truck operators and drivers.

The Port Management System is another recent development at OICT, providing an online platform that allows agents to access and share real-time information on cargo movements. The performance of these platforms, and the introduction of new technologies in the market, is expected to inform technology strategies in the construction of Terminal D at OICT, planned to begin as early as 2018/19.

Duqm & Salalah

At 85% complete, the Port of Duqm is in the very early stages of introducing automated solutions, and is thus in a unique position to optimise investments and resources. As the port nears completion in 2019-20, the authorities will review the most suitable solutions for container terminals and general operations by reviewing automating technologies available in the market and integrating new processes into terminal operations at an early stage.

“The benefit of our being at early stages in introducing the port automation concept at Duqm is that we are still open to everything,” said Vermeulen. “By the time we need to order all the equipment, we will see how technology is evolving. Clearly, what we need to target in Oman in general is efficiency and speed. This is what will ensure Oman becomes an efficient logistics hub.”

The Port of Salalah, another major regional gateway port and trans-shipment hub on the Arabian Sea, is expecting to receive a growing number of calls from container vessels in the 18,000-TEU category in the coming years. These calls are a testament to efficiencies realised at the port, in part through adoption of automated technologies. The port employs a NAVIS yard and vessel planning system, which speeds up planning for loading and unloading vessels using automated tools that assign yard positions to prioritise economic and efficient use of yard space as well as equipment utilisation. The port also operates a new-generation terminal operating system to control the movement and storage of various types of cargo, as well as radio data terminals that link to common warehouse management systems and WLAN infrastructure. Recent developments in automation include the third installation in 2015 of automated, remotely operated mooring units supplied by global engineering group Cavotec.


To facilitate the process of trade exchange through integrated Customs management and electronic permitting, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, in collaboration with the Royal Oman Police Directorate General of Customs, is currently rolling out the Bayan e-government system across land, air and sea Customs ports. The Bayan system is an online, single-window clearance service that provides a seamless, one-stop process for export or import services, reducing administrative and logistical burdens. All shipping firms, Customs clearing brokers, individuals, and agencies importing and exporting goods are required to register for the system through the government’s Customs website or through the Bayan mobile app.

Since implementation of the Bayan system in Sohar, analysis of cargo release times indicates an improvement of approximately three days for the release of containers arriving through the port. At Duqm there has been further opportunity for tests and trials of the system, as the port’s current stage of development has allowed for the smooth integration of the system. ( “The good thing about Duqm port, in respect to the adoption of e-government systems, is that it is currently not a congested port,” said Vermeulen. “This has allowed projects like Bayan to be easily accepted and adopted because there is more time to carry out required processes for implementation. In addition, if the Bayan project was looking to test new features or sub-systems, Duqm is a great place to do it since the port will have fewer customers in line than other ports, making issues easier to fix and move on.”

The electronic system was launched at several more land, air and sea ports in January and March 2016, including Salalah Port and Freezone, Salalah Airport, Sur Port, the Sarfeit land Customs location, the Wajaja land Customs location, the Al Mazyona land Customs location, and the free zone of Al Mazyona. Bayan and the e-One station system were also launched at Muscat International Airport in January 2016.

“I think a lot has been done in e-government, but there is room for improvement,” Wasam Moosa Al Najjar, general manager for corporate planning at Oman Shipping Company told OBG. “If I compare our situation to Dubai, we are still a little bit behind in terms of e-services. As we have increased the use of computers, they have moved to mobile services and applications.”

Driven by greenfield infrastructure investments at Sohar and Duqm, port automation has been embraced in Oman as a pre-requisite to becoming a leading logistics centre in the region. Though implementation strategies vary significantly by stage of development, every port in Oman is increasingly turning to technologies and tools that can automate processes.