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Panama Canal invests in optimised tug and vessel scheduling

Mon 22 May 2017 by Martyn Wingrove

Panama Canal invests in optimised tug and vessel scheduling
Tugs escort an Hamburg Sud container ship through the Panama Canal waterways

Panama Canal Authority is introducing a planning and resource management system from Quintiq for vessel scheduling and managing resources, including tugs

With the opening of the upgraded Panama Canal came challenges in providing the required marine resources, including powerful enough tugs. While questions remain over the adequacy of the tugboat fleet, Panama Canal Authority is introducing a software solution for improving management of the existing tug fleet and ship scheduling.

The authority is introducing a planning and resource management system from Quintiq to improve vessel scheduling for the canal system and to manage marine resources.

When this system goes live later this year, it should improve the availability of marine operations for ship transits and reduce waiting times for vessels. It could also increase the capacity of the canal and the amount of cargo container ships can carry through the locks.

Quintiq director of Latin America Camilo Gaviria expects the first phase to go live in September this year. “Our solution is expected to take care of vessel scheduling and generate a schedule for tugs that assist in the transit,” he said.

The program will help Panama Canal Authority achieve its goal for an integrated planning, resource management and operations environment that will also include scheduling pilot launches, line handlers and tugs. “The long-term plan is to have in a couple of years a fully integrated solution,” said Mr Gaviria.

He added: “Our system enables more concise and precise scheduling, which will enable more efficient tug operations and better resource management. Our system will provide more visibility of tug requirements and enable the assigning of specific tugs to a vessel transit.”

Panama Canal Authority expects tug operations to be more efficient by using the resources available and relocating tugs to where they are needed in convoys through the locks to assist transits. Mr Gaviria continued: “This is particularly important for the new set of locks as they are heavily reliant on tugs for vessel transits.”

Quintiq’s system can provide up to 96 hours of vessel scheduling and lock planning, and will become self-learning for rapid reactions to changes in conditions and ship plans. “It will provide a long-term overview of what is needed and will react to operation disturbances by relocating tugs and rescheduling vessel transits so they are more operationally efficient,” said Mr Gaviria.

The program receives data from various sources, including some in real-time, such as the level of water in the locks, weather and oceanographic conditions, position of tugs and ships using the canal complex and the estimated time of arrival of other ships. “The data helps operators manage the Panama Canal better,” Mr Gaviria explained. “Over time our system will be able to learn how to operate the canal resources more efficiently automatically.”

"This should have significant impact in routes between the east to west coasts of the US because of the increased availability of passages"

But the system still needs input from the experienced and trained canal operators and planners. “When the planner allocates vessels, it will reflect this in the locks utilisation, water and tug utilisation,” he added. “For example, if there is a delay in ship availability or fog disrupts operations, then planners can use their own information and experience to move vessel schedules and then use our system optimiser to move all the vessel schedules around this.”

Quintiq’s solution uses meta-language for modelling and configuring layers to model the supply chain. Rules and constraints are fed into the system to ensure the result is feasible and can be delivered as an optimised solution, Mr Gaviria explained.

“We input local data and use optimisation techniques to model and automatically plan optimised processes for the Panama Canal,” he said “It has the same data that human operators use and when the optimiser completes the modelling, then the result will be immediately available to the planner.”

Using the software should deliver accurate transit windows to ships preparing to use the canal system and increase the throughput of vessels between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Mr Gaviria expects there will be capacity through the locks for Post-Panamax ships, including larger container ships, tankers and gas carriers.

“This should have significant impact in routes between the east and west coasts of the US because of the increased availability of passages,” he said. This means additional capacity on ships and reduced delays during transits. “It should lead to more precise booking in future reservations and reduced costs through the Panama Canal,” Mr Gaviria commented.

Quintiq’s solution should improve gas carrier transits and increase capacity for more LNG carriers. “LNG shipping is particularly complex to plan going through the Panama Canal as they need particular routes,” he said. “There are sequences by which LNG carriers can pass. Integrating this into the schedule will increase capacity for LNG shipping transits.”

While the next step for the Panama Canal Authority is to bring the Quintiq solution online, future stages will include much more data and information. “The system can enable laser guidance, security systems and meteorological information to be streamed in,” Mr Gaviria explained. “This can be then integrated with the manual data, such as lockage rates. The system will use self-learning algorithms to optimise lock times and automate more operations.” He added: “Our system could also forecast future tug requirements.”

Panama Canal key facts:

  • Originally opened 1914
  • Expanded canal opened July 2016
  • New locks on the Atlantic and Pacific sides
  • Capacity for Post-Panamax vessels up to 13,000 teu
  • Expansion doubled the waterway’s cargo capacity
  • Expansion cost of US$5.25 billion
  • Total of 18 basins for the entire project
  • 16 rolling gates required for the new locks
  • Forecast 2017 volumes: 397 million tonnes


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