Research Case Study

Impact: Increasing operational efficiency at the UK's busiest container port

  • Tagged under

    Technology, data and innovation

Stephen Abraham, Ali Shaghaghi and Abdel Salhi working at port.

The Port of Felixstowe, the UK’s busiest container port, relies on complex planning and scheduling to cope with the demands of dealing with almost half of the UK’s containerised trade.

The Operational Research (OR) academics from our School of Mathematics, Statistics and Actuarial Science joined forces with Felixstowe’s Operations Development Team to develop new, improved solutions to some of these complex planning and scheduling problems. Essex research fundamentally changed the Port’s approach and their adoption of Essex’s Operational Research systematic methods improved operational efficiency in many areas.

The challenge

A busy and constantly evolving port operation throws up many challenges around allocating berths, assigning cranes, scheduling them and deploying the right skilled workers to operate equipment at the right time and near optimum cost, depending on the business needs of the day. Productivity, minimising stay time at port with prompt cargo loading/unloading is crucial.

Whilst maintaining the highest possible customer service, container ports typically have to schedule work over horizons of 6 to 12 hours by allocating tasks to staff with varying areas of expertise in a way, which minimises the wage bill for completing the tasks. Mandatory work breaks, overtime and safety constraints must be accounted for; a safe working environment is essential.

What we did

The OR and Optimisation academics at the Essex School of Mathematics, Statistics and Actuarial Science developed new methods to solve scheduling problems specific to the Port of Felixstowe. The first of these was the scheduling of the labour force deployed at the port, in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Hutchison Ports UK Ltd. Working directly with the Operations Business Analysis Manager of Port of Felixstowe, a novel optimisation model of the problem was developed and appropriate algorithms were applied to it. The generated solutions help to efficiently deploy employees with multiple skills to do the work needed to be done, at certain times.

This research addressed the key objectives of maximising utilisation, reducing costs and providing good working conditions for employees. The method provided high quality schedules for employees, which reduce the costs of the associated labour deployment. An associated labour management system was developed to optimise labour planning tailored to the port’s needs, fitting with existing tools and practices.

Developing mathematical models, adapting evolutionary algorithms and implementing them using appropriate software, provided the port with a tool which produced an alternative shift pattern to better match labour deployment to demand than manual methods.

Subsequent research further extended the scheduling problem to include seaside (such as ship berth allocation) as well as landside operations problems at container ports like Felixstowe. For instance, demonstrating how integrating the berth allocation, quay crane assignment and quay crane scheduling problems into a single model, when solved, provides better overall solutions compared to considering them individually.

What we changed

Novel heuristic approaches for solving optimisation problems, based on underlying Essex research, were applied to address workforce deployment at the port; the tool can save 10% on labour costs. The Port found the change in their working practices and approach that resulted to be even more important than the adoption of the systematic OR methods developed at Essex.

Collaboration with Essex’s OR researchers aided the development of new mathematical skills within the Operations Development Team members which they use daily. It also improved the company’s culture, increasing the appetite for a more analytical approach to problem solving and increased our academic awareness. The profound effect is evidenced by the creation of new permanent roles within the company, such as the Operations Research Analyst and the Management Information Analyst.

Through continued collaborative research, the input of the University of Essex’s OR research enhanced Felixstowe’s Operations Development Team’s abilities to frame and develop bespoke algorithms for optimisation and operational improvement, increasing the efficiency of their operations in many areas. These gains benefit the industry worldwide with around 17 shipping lines operating through the Port of Felixstowe, providing 33 services a week across all continents. The Port receives vessels from all around the globe and Britain’s ability to trade relies on vessels and shipping lanes together with the ports that serve them.