Complex software processes at

container terminals

At first glance, container terminals look almost identical no matter where you go in the world. Ships carrying containers arrive in the port, where they are unloaded onto the shore by large cranes. Next, the operation is reversed, and the ships are loaded with new containers and take off again. As Pascal Muller and Pieter van der Spek know all too well, appearances are deceptive. “Each terminal is different - at some terminals much of the work is still carried out by humans, while others have automated part of their operations.”

Pieter is employed by ICT Group and works as a Systems Architect at a container terminal in the Port of Antwerp. “All the vehicles here are manned by drivers, including the cranes, and the office is staffed by people who handle freight customs clearance. We are currently in the process of automating some of the work,” Pieter explains.

Hutchison Ports ECT Rotterdam (ECT), located in the Maasvlakte industrial area, on the other hand, is highly automated. “ECT was the first container terminal operator in the world to start using automated guided vehicles (AGVs),” says Pascal, who is employed by ICT Group and currently working as a Software Engineer at ECT. But even this terminal has some way to go before it’s fully caught up in the automation stakes. “This involves everything from implementing exception-handling software designed to replace frequently repeated administrative tasks to optimising our maritime planning processes. I’ve been involved in that project for several years now.”


Whenever a ship arrives, we know how many containers, and what types of containers, need to be unloaded from and loaded onto the vessel. Working together with ECT, Pascal developed a software application that controls the loading/unloading process, but that also handles administrative tasks.

“Stability is a factor you need to consider when loading and unloading containers from ships. To ensure processes in the terminal run smoothly, the number of operations should be kept to a minimum, and containers should therefore be stacked as efficiently as possible. All these factors are incorporated in our software applications, while the planners still have some measure of control over the process.”


“No matter what application it is, we need smart people to build the systems so that they support end users in their work”, Pieter says. As a software designer, you need to incorporate all the necessary features and cover all the eventualities in developing the applications, ranging from crane cycle times, automated lane keeping, speed, and various other tasks. What he finds challenging is to not only look at the ideal circumstances, but finding solutions for situations in which things could go wrong. “That’s where our added value comes in. Of course, you do get it wrong sometimes and then need to find another solution. But if it does work, it always gives me a thrill. In the type of work we’re involved in, the software becomes almost tangible, as it’s installed in devices that actually do something. I really like that I get to use my technical skills in this job while taking into account human needs at the same time.”

“No matter what application it is, we need smart people to build the systems so that they support end users in their work.”

Pieter van der Spek, Systems Architect at ICT Group


Most software applications developed by ICT Group for the various container terminals are web applications, apps or automated elements running in the background. Pieter: “You’re dealing with different technologies and communication protocols: simple TCP, web sockets, web services, PLC, communication, and so on. And you need to be able to understand all these different worlds.” Pascal: “But understanding them alone does not cut it: you need to use them as a starting point. This includes all existing applications, designed by ICT Group and other providers. New bits of software are added all the time, and our job is to make these updates interact in the background with older parts of the software, or with applications from other providers. That does add some complications to the mix, because it means you’re running a hybrid landscape.”


As clear-cut as the work performed at a container terminal may look, it’s actually complex and demanding. And that’s precisely the challenge Pieter and Pascal enjoy: “We actually get to see the software we designed put into practice right here on site. It’s great to see your work become tangible, powering the vehicles you see driving around.” Pieter adds: “Anyone would enjoy the sheer scale and excitement of this process, but what makes it so much fun for us is that we’re aware of the decisions that facilitate it and the complex processes that keep it all running.”

ECT is the developer and operator of the first fully automated facility of its kind in the world, and their processes are continuously enhanced and refined in order to maintain this high level of automation. Pascal Muller, employed by ICT Group and currently working as a Software Engineer at ECT, has been closely involved in these operations for the past several years. “My focus over the past three years has been on optimising maritime planning processes.”

Read Pascal’s blog on our website. Pascal's Challenge: remaining the most technically advanced terminal.