Each of the concrete and steel wharfs at the Port of Rotterdam, Europe's busiest shipping hub, hosts the loading and unloading of billions of dollars in goods over its useful life. Managing and maintaining these waterfront structures so that the world's largest cargo containers can dock at them means the difference between collecting revenue and watching ships sail elsewhere.
The scale of this challenge becomes clear when you look at a map of the Netherlands coast. The port snakes along a 42-kilometer stretch of the Nieuwe Mass tributary system, with the tail near the historic city center and the mouth jutting westward into the North Sea. An expansion called Maasvlakte 2, which reclaimed land from the North Sea, opened for business in June; it gives the port a land and water footprint about twice the area of Manhattan.
So it makes sense when Erwin Rademaker, a program manager at the port, explains that his team worked for several years to develop PortMaps, a georeferenced asset management system. It tracks locations of ships in transit as well as fixed assets including quay walls, railways, roads, energy pipelines, buildings, shipping terminals and more.
Development took time, not only because there's a lot going on, but also because Rotterdam has been an important port for centuries. There have been many methods for collecting and reporting data over the years. Reinventing old business processes and developing tech to support them took time.
What's different now for Rotterdam's IT and asset managers -- and for other enterprises adopting new location-enabled asset-management systems -- is that they can use an advanced set of technologies that record location data from more vantage points, and with greater precision, to be analyzed and visualized, says Randy Rhodes, a Gartner analyst. (See "All together now," below.) "When we think about assets, overhead infrastructure or physical buildings, or roadways, tunnels, harbors -- all of this now can be precisely understood by a wide variety of sensors," Rhodes says.
Another factor is that the end-user population has high expectations for easy-to-use applications because of the wide proliferation of smartphones and tablets. With so many smartphone users holding a map in their hands, there's a rising interest among users to see what's involved when a work question includes "where?"
Rhodes says this demand presents a challenge for IT organizations not prepared to make the shift to user-friendly apps, particularly with geographic information systems (GIS) and their historic technology cousins, computer assisted design (CAD) systems, deployed for asset management. "Not everyone understands how to manage GIS or CAD environments," he says. Those technologies have been quiet within businesses "and now [they're] front and center because of the upswing of mobile devices," he adds.
Businesses implementing GIS-based asset management systems cite lessons familiar to IT project leaders: Business drivers guide them. Data quality is paramount. If the new applications change existing business processes, it's likely that end users will need training. Applications that are simple to use engage more employees and lead to better results.
A look at the experiences of the Port of Rotterdam, Scheid Vineyards, Express Energy Services and other organizations demonstrates the range of ways asset managers are using these systems to monitor their investments, assess risks and find opportunities in the things they already own and run.
"Three clicks to insight"
At the Port of Rotterdam, two factors drove the development of the PortMaps system. First, the port's existing systems could not support its goals to grow from 400 million tons of cargo per year now to 750 million by 2030. The port's jumble of 40 or so disconnected applications were created for specific groups like lease managers and maintenance crews. These applications often used different terms to describe the same things. GIS data used by some of the applications included 1,500 layers of information, Rademaker says.
The second driver was the need to get users on board. "We would use the map as a single point of entry, available for any user, without any training, in just three clicks," Rademaker says. The goal was to "make it a simple system, like the iPhone. Easy to navigate."
So Rademaker's team started over. In one year, they held 90 workshops with stakeholders to discuss their work and information needs, all to define data structures and functionality that a new system would support. Organizing the data models took another year. The project team came up with three data categories: water, land and the fixed border between them.
All assets -- moorings and pipelines and financial agreements like leases -- were connected to these categories, and maps would draw lines based on those connections. (For example, a light pole is attached to a road on land.) To streamline data management, the team set the number of asset descriptions in each category to 10 items: lease sites, roads, railways, green areas, pipelines on land; waterways, ship berths and harbor areas on the water; and quay walls and water banks with mooring facilities.
After six months of implementation work -- including a final bakeoff between two proof-of-concept implementations, in which teenage children of port employees tested the system's user friendliness -- PortMaps launched in January. It runs on Esri's ArcGIS platform using that system's geographic data, and includes financial and administrative data from an SAP ERP system and Microsoft SharePoint for documents, images and files.
As of this summer, PortMaps was serving up about 1,000 maps a day to some 300 users: Project managers, asset managers, field inspectors, nautical operators, environmental analysts, cartographers and shipping route analysts. They log on, search for what they need and find maps with data about the area they are focused on.
Rademaker says the system's model and underlying architecture are designed to last at least 10 years. "A quay wall will last for 25 years," he says, using the Dutch term for wharf. "Ships are getting bigger and bigger, and we have to try to predict what is going to happen." That means information about assets has to serve as a valuable asset in itself, preparing the port for the future.
Next section: Harvest time at the vineyard