Camco celebrates 25 years – Interview with CEO Jan Bossens


In an interview with WorldCargo News, Camco CEO Jan Bossens reflected on Camco’s journey to its 25th anniversary in 2024 and discussed its plans for the future.

Camco celebrates 25 years - Interview with CEO Jan Bossens
Caption 25 years in the making, Camco has eyes on the next quarter-century too © Camco

When Camco entered the ‘OCR’ market in 1999, digital cameras were still in their infancy. Camco’s first system used analogue CCTV cameras, and what Jan Bossens called “some kind of video grabber cards”, to take pictures of trucks for a damage control system for RoRo terminals.

In 2000, Camco started to develop its first line scan camera to capture container numbers. At that time, SAIC led the new gate automation market. However, the technology was an expensive proposition.

“OCR portals were sold at more than US$500,000. We targeted our solution at a fifth of the SAIC price,” Jan Bossens said. In 2005, Camco reached a milestone when it sold its first integrated gate automation system to AMPT Rotterdam. “Probably the first in the world and still in use,” Jan recalled.

Market leader

“As Camco celebrates 25 years, we are proud to state that Camco is ‘number one’ in our market niche,” Jan declared. In that quarter century, the company has put down a global footprint. There are six local branches, all headquartered in Leuven, Belgium. The staff number is 240, and turnover is close to US$40m.

“More important is our position as a preferred supplier for large green and brownfields projects. Many factors push us into this premium position. Apart from a TOS, we have today almost all the products needed to automate container terminals. We don’t depend on technology partners. On top of that, we have trained hardware and software teams, and professional project management, to bring such projects to a good end.”

There have been some key technology innovations from Camco along the way. Camco introduced its first OCR portal in 2002. It used cameras with an embedded computer developed in-house, to bring image processing as close to the image sensor as possible. This was a precursor to IP cameras, which evolved into ‘Edge AI’.

Other examples include Camco’s modular kiosk, of which there are now over 2,500 units installed globally; and the BoxCatcher crane OCR system, which is now installed on over 300 STS cranes.

Keeping it in-house

Camco’s systems require hardware including cameras, kiosks, portals and other components. Around 80% of these requirements are designed and produced in-house. Jan said this model is “part of Camco’s DNA”. Both Camco and its customers benefit from optimised solutions that do not depend on off-the-shelf technology. Camco is in control of production and has preserved commonality across its products.

Camco has systems in the market today that have been operating for more than 15 years. Having a common platform and limited diversity of equipment helps immensely with spare parts and service. Camco’s own service teams only need to be experts in one product line, and Camco has been able to drive plug-and-play maintenance.

“Take our very popular and iconic kiosk. All electronics can be replaced in less than 60 seconds, without any tools,” Jan emphasised. “Hardware technologies are the fundamental bricks we use to build smart terminals. The more control we have over those bricks, the better we can deliver good results.”

Shifting strategy

As process automation matures, the market balance is shifting slowly, away from hardware to software. While the amount of hardware on smart terminals continues to increase, the actual capex cost of data capture hardware is dropping further. Today, a Camco OCR portal costs less than a tenth of SAIC systems noted earlier.

On the other hand, terminals face further increasing opex costs, in personnel and expertise to maintain automation systems. Software helps address this issue, while at the same time making automation easier to implement. Camco still intends to produce, sell and install hardware products, but the company is pivoting the balance of its resources towards the software market.

In 2021 Camco started developing “THE BRIDGE”, a new unified browser-based platform that allows customers to operate, manage, maintain and monitor all Camco products, even across multiple terminals.

“All operational exceptions from gates, cranes, rail, yard and RTLS are centralised, even from multiple terminals. The same for configuration of equipment or technical problems, an operational manager can check with a few mouse clicks the technical status of all the hardware and can issue and follow up service tickets to Camco,” said Jan.

THE BRIDGE can also be leveraged to support the global querying of container data through a terminal. A container’s precise position can be tracked from a booking system, right through the gate, to the vessel bay and slot location, with supporting location and picture data on every handover location.

Data is just the start. THE BRIDGE offers tools to optimise terminal processes, including a digital twin. “Our ‘Real Time Digital Twin’ solution is an example,” Jan said. “Today it’s easy to see congestion areas on the terminal just by playback of the data in our RT Digital Twin solution. The TOS vendors deliver similar solutions but their data is second source, actually coming from the automation systems. Camco is at the source. We have the hard data as pictures, location data, PLC data, telematic data, and even all the screens used on the VMTs, kiosks and smartphones,” Jan said.

In the future THE BRIDGE will integrate third-party products, but in a different manner. “You can replace a Cisco switch with an HP switch, but you cannot configure and monitor a Cisco switch with HP management software or vice versa. That’s our message today to terminals. Limit the number of vendors and go with those that have a long-term strategy and a supporting software platform. Avoid “silos” in your smart terminal automation projects,” Jan said.

Camco is also targeting new applications to help terminals close the loop on digitising processes. From his observations, visiting dozens of manned and semi-automated terminals, Jan sees a lot of facilities that “live in three different worlds”.In the first world, there is a functional gap. The service the terminals think they are providing – to shipping lines with manual processes – differs from what is delivered.

Typical areas include container inspections, identifying truck drivers, checking seals and weighing containers. Poor performance rates in these areas are relatively easy to address with data capture technology if the terminal has the right mindset.

The second world is how the terminal actually operates. The third world is the TOS with its virtual yard locations for containers, equipment and other data. Ideally, actual operations would be perfectly syntonised with the TOS. In reality, this is not the case. The TOS gives instructions to workers on the terminal, but it relies on their feedback to confirm container locations as instructed.

“The TOS assumes those instructions are followed up correctly and assumes received data is correct, but we know the reality is different. It depends purely on the discipline of these workers and other human-impacting factors, like bad weather,” Jan said.

Camco offers solutions to combine location technology, including Real-time Location Systems (RTLS), Ultra-wideband communications (UWB), RFID and OCR systems, and spreader cameras that can be integrated into process automation systems to confirm container location as well as container numbers.

“Bringing all three worlds together into one world,” Jan added. Armed with good data on the actual condition of the yard, terminals can start to optimise processes. “Here AI opens new doors to possibilities that no one could dream about”, he concluded.

5G Spreader camera

Camco has announced its new 5G spreader camera. It is designed to address problems in the yard, mainly for RTG systems. Spreader cameras have a double use.

Firstly, they check the container roof for damage, particularly the area close to the corner castings, where holes can be created by hard landing of the spreader pins. The second application is reading the two container numbers on the roof.

“The challenge with spreader cameras is getting the data to the computer room. The wiring between the spreader and the crane control room is very limited. Additionally, many RTGs have no ethernet connection. To solve these issues Camco added 5G to its spreader camera. Even a PLC connection is not required. This new product is already operational at two sites,” Camco stated.