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Dry Bulk,

A terminal operating system (TOS) is defined as: a TOS primarily aims to control the movement and storage of various types of cargo in and around a terminal or port. The system enables you to make better use of your assets, labour and equipment, plan your workload and get up to the minute information, which allows for more timely and cost-effective decision making.1

The definition and function of a TOS originates from the container terminal sector and, in bulk terminal operations, these systems have grown up in parallel and are more commonly known as terminal management systems (TMS) with some variance in particular functionality more specific for bulk operations than that seen in containers or general cargo.

Every cargo type, handling method and terminal structure leads to variance in required system function and the boundaries of definition between system types is becoming increasingly blurred as cross-discipline and broader functions are applicable to most cargo terminals. Common themes and challenges exist for terminals handling coal, container or cars.

Figure 1. Transet Port Terminals, Saldanha Bay, managed by a TOS.

For sake of clarity, this article will consider 'TOS' and 'TMS' to be common and bring together some core themes and issues from the dry bulk viewpoint, but which are also relevant to other sectors.

TOSs evolved out of the need generated by the embryonic container industry back in the 1970s to manage large volumes of transactions on a strict workflow, managing the container traffic movements through the terminal in a uniform and controlled manner, providing communications electronically to all stakeholders. The TOS became the core system to manage customer stock, regulatory control, operational planning and customer billing.

This collection of functions has grown alongside container terminals to refine all aspects of terminal operation, reducing manpower input, improving operational efficiency (in real-time cargo handling, planning, asset management and communications) and therefore shaving cost from the business. There are a wide variety of TOS products on the market that cater for all scale and needs of container terminals, but all centre around the same central themes.

Figure 2. Key TOS functions.

Only in relatively recent terms has cargo handling automation become a hot topic in container terminals, bringing together machine automation controlled by the TOS – with all the challenges and opportunities this can bring to an operation.

In dry bulk operations, the TMS has historically evolved from the opposite direction, with the early adoption of automated cargo handling systems here, immediately driving forward the need for centralised control via SCADA systems and then an over-arching stock control and operational software management tool in the TMS.

The TMS needs in dry bulk terminals have evolved to be much more specialised to each cargo and terminal function, with less standardised workflow applicable across disciplines (unlike the overall aim of container terminals, for example). The TMS has been focused on the control of the various automated equipment and the workflow to manage mixed cargoes and packets safely, cleanly and without contamination. The software market for solely TMS is much more limited than with TOS, with the automation control being the principle driver for TMS function, rather than the focus on broader business functions and benefits that adoption of a TOS/TMS can bring.

Obviously, the functions of dry bulk and container terminals are very different, however, as all cargo handling types are becoming more automated and the common overall business demands for productivity, transparency and profitability grow at every port, there are lessons to be shared between these sectors.


Key benefits of TOS in dry bulk terminal operations


A TOS is the business backbone of a cargo terminal and should take care of most aspects of cargo processing and customer interaction, from vessel nomination, through to road, rail and barge operations, eventually to billing and key performance indicator (KPI) reporting. These principles apply to a wide range of bulk terminal operations: from those that operate with sophisticated automation systems through to the manual or mixed method terminals.

Transparency and accuracy for customers

For dry bulk operations, the TOS is the central point of all information, particularly for stock control. The adoption of a TOS usually removes several layers of spreadsheets or paper files, awash with cross-referencing issues, risk of errors and extra human input for managing it all. The TOS creates a standard workflow with linked data for managing cargo from vessel to yard to truck and train, with a single auditable trail for customers to see their stock position instantly. When linked to calibrated weighing equipment, either manually operated or linked to the TOS to provide real-time data, all round accuracy is provided. This real-time sharing of the ‘single truth’ and transparency to customers is a revelation for some terminal operators.

Customer reporting, web portals, automated email updates, KPI benchmark monitoring and similar features to promote transparency in stock holding, processing (bagging, mill feeds) and terminal release/delivery all provide sound customer service benefits to the terminal operator – sometimes offering competitive advantage in their regional marketplace for securing new clients.

For the terminal operator, as a business, there are several internal benefits to harvest from a TOS deployment. These focus around planning and production, driving profitability, which are all reliant on being able to measure and, therefore, manage the business via the TOS.




Many TOS products allow some form of berth planning and vessel scheduling for the terminal, which is the starting point for managing cargo flowing into and out of the facility, allowing downstream planning of equipment and storage area usage. Berth and quayside equipment planning and use are key business tools, both for simply scheduling maintenance and, more broadly, estimating the further capacity of the business (and its relative performance). These calendarising features can also extend to include laytime calculation tools, providing a forecasting tool for estimating expected demurrage or despatch on vessel calls, using various parameters of expected (and/or contracted) handling rates to provide a rich view for management to take action to minimise any penalties.

The TOS should allow planning and recording of equipment hours used on all areas of the operation – cranes on vessel hatch, gangs on yard movements, train tipplers – which can then allow the terminal to understand the scheduled usage of assets and then the relative performance of each gang or equipment item over time, providing transparency to guide any future management or investment decisions.

Being able to plan ahead for equipment usage, labour requirements, yard storage and stock dwell in a central TOS is a key business benefit.




Productivity of deployed equipment and labour is vital to business success and measuring the production rates at the terminal is a key management task, with or without a TOS. The TOS can be used to manually record tally/tonnage processed from a vessel, barge or train, to give a rudimentary measure of resulting productivity for the equipment and labour used. However, the ability to monitor production usefully really comes alive when the TOS is linked to any level of automated weight data gathering to provide a real-time management view on progress.

The TOS should be able to use various types of weight-gathering tools, either as part of a wider SCADA deployment or from stand-alone equipment, such as road weighbridges or mobile handling weighers. All sources of weight data can be brought together to give various views on cargo handling productivity.

As a counter-balance to production tonnage rates, the TOS should also allow recording of any delays or stoppages in operation; these could be chargeable to a customer, deductible against laytime or for measuring internal issues for improvement. Delay recording against gangs, cranes and other equipment is a key guide for management to analyse, learn and put improvements into place to gradually bear down on lost production capacity and reduce demurrage penalties.

Tonnage progress across a shift – either minute-by-minute or just from a draft survey at day’s end – combined with equipment and labour hours used, less any delays incurred, a rich and informative picture of terminal productivity can emerge. The TOS allows greater data collection in real time through automation links and the use of mobile devices for recording delays. Over time, the TOS analysis tools can provide detailed insight into the terminal performance – a strong tool to steer and improve the business – vital to learn and improve productivity over time.

Most TOS products have onboard KPI monitoring and reporting tools or can integrate with generic reporting tools, such as Crystal Reports, for management to merge and slice performance data in every combination.




The TOS should be able to automatically generate all aspects of customer billing from the terminal’s services: from cargo handling, through monthly storage and most ancillary services. The TOS generally, as a matter of good practice, will work in parallel with a formal finance system for managing customer accounts, payments and credit control, but the data for billing comes mostly from the TOS. Therefore, accuracy and reliability of the billing data as collected through the planning and production phases is paramount; elimination of spreadsheets and reliance on single and accurate truth can be a great improvement for some terminals.

To truly monitor profitability is a complex field, but a TOS can provide a base and comparative insight over vessels operated and long periods of time. This measure requires a combination of revenue gathered, equipment and labour hours used, any delays or penalties (demurrage principally) incurred – all of which reside within the TOS. The addition of cost profiles, either in the TOS or using a parallel reporting system, which could draw off date from maintenance systems, payroll, etc., can give a great insight into business performance.


Adoption of a TOS


Unless the terminal is a new build with workflows and technical requirements designed-in, then the adoption of a TOS in a bulk terminal is a technical, human and business change challenge that requires commitment in order to extract the best results.

The selection of a TOS is a vital stage, first to understand the terminal’s requirements and priorities, then to analyse and select a suitable product and vendor for the job. A TOS is a significant investment; they are generally more complex and opaque to procure compared to almost any other piece of terminal equipment.

Deployment of the TOS is equally important to selection, with a terminal team required to work closely with the vendor to customise and configure the TOS (especially with any system interfaces) and manage the human aspects of the inevitable business change – re-engineering processes, testing software, training and supporting the staff. To gather some of the benefits outlined above in planning, measuring and analysing performance, all the foundations and interfaces need to be working well, which can be a complex and long task to achieve.


Adoption of a TOS can secure strong business benefits, but is a significant investment of cash, time and business-risk for all types of terminal. Increasingly, the TOS is a vital core component of all dry bulk terminals.


Case study: Saldanha Bay, Transnet Port Terminals, South Africa


At Transnet Port Terminals (TPT) Saldanha Bay operation since September 2014, the CommTrac TOS from DBIS Ltd has handled all bulk operations at the facility. Saldanha Bay is South Africa’s and Africa’s largest iron ore export terminal and handles in excess of 60 million tpy of bulk for both international and national markets.

CommTrac is a leading bulk and break bulk cargo TOS and is installed worldwide. Developed by DBIS – part of Terex Corp. – it delivers precision real-time control of all cargo moves. It is central to TPT’s plans to increase bulk capacity by 28% to 82.5 million tpy by 2020. The system manages reception, delivery and storage of cargo, automatic activity charging, real-time control of inventory tonnage, position, discharge and loading processes plus delays and variance reporting for increased efficiency, accuracy, safety, security, profitability and compliance.

CommTrac integrates with TPT’s SCADA systems to drive real-time event data. This enables TPT to define and set process rules that ensure all inbound and outbound cargo movements match the planned throughput demands of the business.

In addition, real-time event logging provides operational data recording and analysis of loading rates and stoppages, underpinning TPT’s continuous improvement strategies. CommTrac also enables TPT to define operating terms customer-by-customer; all activities are accrued automatically and then transferred into the company’s SAP business management system for invoicing.

“We already handle 16 to 20 vessel berthings per month – CommTrac gives us the real-time fingertip control we need to increase efficiency and reduce costs, while optimising terminal operations for the improved throughput that drives revenues and growth," said Fernando Goncalves, Information Systems Manager at TPT. "It’s a proven system that has been well received by users and management alike. It’s easy to use operationally, delivering pinpoint control of all cargo, equipment and resources. It has enhanced our customer service and the excellent information reporting provides us with the superior grip needed to run a facility of this scale.”




1. Wikipedia:




Richard Willis, Port Solutions Ltd, UK.

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