Port operators around the globe have been adopting emerging technologies and pushing ahead with digital transformation efforts to streamline supply-chain operations. DP World, which operates the Middle East’s largest seaport, Dubai’s Jebel Ali, is no exception.
The company started out as a port terminal operator but in recent years has branched out, offering a variety of services designed to enable global trade.
Its recent data-exchange agreement with TradeLens — the blockchain-based container logistics system developed by IBM and shipping giant Maersk – has been widely viewed as giving a big boost to that initiative, since DP World has 50,000 people working at 150 different ports and other facilities around the world.
“DP World’s vision is to lead the digital transformation of global trade, including standardising logistics documentation processes and formats and moving them online,” said Mike Bhaskaran, DP World’s chief operating officer for logistics and technology.
The company’s corporate parent, Port and Free Zone World, signalled its commitment to this goal in February when it delisted the enterprise from Nasdaq Dubai, paying a 29 percent premium over the share price to bring the enterprise private; the stated intent was to let DP World “focus on its medium-to-long-term strategy of transforming from a global port operator to an infrastructure-led, end-to-end logistics provider,” the company said.
Revamped freight portal aims at efficiency
A key part of this effort has been the work done to revamp a sea-freight online portal that builds on technology it acquired in its purchase of digital freight-booking site SeaRates.com in 2019. The site is experiencing rising interest from customers and traders, Bhaskaran claims.
The portal was launched in March, and publicly announced in April, earlier than expected, as part of an effort to strengthen global supply chains in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The updated site is designed to solve a major problem affecting global trade at the moment. The movement of cargo from origin to destination involves multiple participants and paperwork, including a letter of credit from the banks; truckers that pick up the goods from the customer depending on how international commercial terms are set; and a bill of lading book – a detailed list of a ship’s cargo in the form of a receipt given by the carrier to the person consigning the goods.
Following the acquisition of SeaRates.com, technology executives at DP World, including Bhaskaran, had to come up with ways to increase the reach of the small freight-forwarding platform.
“We looked at the product and asked ourselves, how do we make sure that this particular platform to the broader community right now?” Bhaskaran said.
Apart from creating the Digital Freight Alliance – an online association that brings traders globally onto DP World online portals SeaRates.com, LandRates.com and AirRates.com – the company started addressing “critical gaps” in the SeaRates site by developing additional features in-house, Bhaskaran said.
Some of the services now available on the portal are: logistics explorer, a real-time freight calculator; container tracking, a tool that allows customers to see their cargo location on their map in real-time; a load calculator, an application that can analyses the optimal placement of goods into a container or truck.
Logistics platform is based on open source
These applications have been incorporated in the LandRates and AirRates sites. The core development of the technology foundation for the portals is being done on PostgreSQL, also known as Postgres, a free and open-source relational database management system, said Bhaskaran, adding that DP World also utilises Python and PHP coding languages with Nginx, an open-source web server.
PHP or Hypertext Preprocessor is an HTML-embedded, server-side scripting language designed for web development. Migrating from one database server to another is usually quite simple since most of PHP’s functions have a common naming convention. A programmer can do simple global pattern replacements to change from one database brand to another.
Python, the default scripting language of choice for many developers, is fully object oriented, and is currently one of the most popular programming languages — in third place behind Java and C.
DP World’s online portals and related services are centrally hosted and can be accessed by a web browser, essentially as SaaS (software-as-a-service) applications.
“It’s easy to access,” said Bhaskaran, and eliminates the need for customers to maintain certain on-premises legacy systems, or set up new in-house applications. Globally, the demand for SaaS is on the rise, with the market expected to grow to US$220.21 billion at an annual growth rate of 13.1 percent through 2022, according to Research and Markets.
SaaS enables supply-chain transactions
To ensure smooth transactions between global buyers and sellers, DP World is using APIs (application programming interfaces) to enable data exchange in and out of the portal. SaaS-based products lend themselves well to integrating APIs as the software is already built on a distributed model.
“If you have a freight forwarder in Dar es-Salaam and there is a freight forwarder in Dubai … they meet on the digital platform, and then they make sure there is a sense of connection because both have been vetted in terms of knowing the customer,” said Bhaskaran, implying that the presence of a common virtual meet-up point will encourage more transactions.
DP World’s move comes at a time when seaports and the maritime freight industry are undergoing digital transformation at a rapid pace. According to Transparency Market Research, the market for global digital transformation of maritime freight is expected to reach about US$38.4 billion in value by 2027, compared to US$18.2 billion in 2019.
In the Middle East, DP World is among a handful of industry giants to embrace emerging technology, in particular blockchain. Though the DP World online portals themselves are not not part of TradeLens, they will exchange data with TradeLens.
TradeLens to enhance logistics data
“DP World has joined up with TradeLens and will put data in from its ports, and take data out from the rest of the TradeLens network. The [Indian] port of Cochin is being connected as a first step, with the rest to follow,” Bhaskaran said. “The large amounts of data available from our participation with TradeLens will help power our platforms and offer better services to our customers.”
Separately, DP World is working on a number of blockchain development projects. Last year, the company signed an initial deal with the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry to collaborate on the Digital Silk Road, a smart digital platform which utilises blockchain technology to increase the transparency and efficiency of supply chains through a comprehensive automation process.
In 2018, DP World joined other leading ocean carriers and terminal operators in forming the Global Shipping Business Network (GSBN), with the goal of developing an open blockchain platform to share documents and data.
“Distributed ledgers have the potential to make trade more visible, more efficient, faster, and easier,” Bhaskaran said.
DP World, which has also partnered with Mastercard to digitise port ecosystem payment flows, plans to invest in more technology-led initiatives in the future, said Bhaskaran.