Digital brings a sea change to shipping

As the world changes, so does shipping – once ruled by the elements, seafarers’ lives are now fast being guided by technology, which is transforming an industry built on a proud heritage.

In my region, shipping is pivotal to a number of economies, alongside the broader maritime sector, including ports and logistics. I’ve watched with keen interest as this age old marketplace has evolved and actively embraced innovation. Trends such as globalization and containerization have changed its very fabric and presented it with unique challenges. The industry as a whole understands such changes are necessary and inevitable. Shipping companies that can alter their operations and vision in line with digital thinking are better prepared to succeed.

1) Smarter ships with data analytics

There is an issue of older ships in the region, which are struggling to keep up with their digital counterparts; but in general, ships are getting bigger, better and more sophisticated. This is a direct result of containerization and automation. If one ship can deliver four times the cargo in one journey, it is a no-brainer.

On these so called "smart ships," companies are already using data analytics to optimize performance and fuel consumption, avoid bad weather and utilize the best and most cost-effective routes, for example. Sensors can monitor everything from cargo temperatures to a ship’s speed. This data can be used by the crew or sent to other ships or HQ offices on land in real time to support informed decision making.

2) Anticipate problems with predictive maintenance

Many of these large vessels are inflexible in design, making maintenance difficult. Predictive maintenance technology can make huge savings for shipping companies by scheduling corrective maintenance before a ship is in open waters, where it becomes far more costly and complex to carry out repairs. Protective coating paint, for example, can help crews schedule paint related maintenance before paint deteriorates and irreversible corrosion occurs.

Shipping inspections to ensure that ships are safe and sea-worthy have started to be carried out by drones. These inspections are usually carried out by humans, but they are both time consuming and dangerous, given the size of ships. Drones with high resolution cameras can now video the ships, and image recognition can detect damage, making the task far easier. Drones score high on cost and time savings as well as employee safety.

3) Connectivity for crew

The shipping industry is struggling with employment and retention of seafarers. In the past, many have been dogged by loneliness, depression and alcoholism after months at sea. Lifestyle expectations have made working at sea a less attractive place to be. But, digital transformation has the potential to reinvigorate the industry.

Shipping companies are working to give crew an "on-land" end user experience. Comprehensive maritime connectivity via global satellite networks can provide the same amenities as home, such as Internet access, social media, etc. This gives seafarers the opportunity to use spare time to study, for example, opening up the industry to student recruits.

But with ships becoming more digitized, skill sets will need to broaden to encompass more advanced technologies. At the same time, we will undoubtedly see specialist crew working more remotely, perhaps looking after three or four vessels, for example. At the same time, crews will need to be trained in cyberdefense to limit possible breaches that may endanger their vessels as they become more connected.

4) Telemedicine to reduce disruption

Crew welfare is paramount – it can make the difference between a successful journey and a ship having to divert because of a sick crew member. According to a recent study by the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA) of 23,299 commercial ships with a total of 420,000 crew members, one in five ships is forced to divert due to crew illness each year. The average cost per ship diversion is a staggering $180,000. Remote diagnosis and treatment by way of telemedicine could make huge savings here. Live video streaming, for example, could enable a doctor on shore to see the patient, especially where an injury working onboard may have occurred.

The shipping forecast

For me, combining digital and maritime skills is the way forward. I’ve already heard the industry talking about autonomous ships, which will be safer and more efficient to build and run. But in the short-term, they won’t be unmanned. Their technology will be more advanced, creating more roles for highly skilled workers.

Digital transformation is forcing the shipping industry to evaluate how it has traditionally done business. From what I’ve seen, it is unlikely to be an easy voyage. The most memorable never are. But it promises to breathe new life into an age old tradition and ensure its long-term future.

Digital tools and solutions are delivering a range of benefits to the shipping industry, which include increased efficiencies and vital cost savings, lower emissions, increased visibility of cargo and enhanced crew welfare. Find out more here.

Richard Van Wageningen

Richard van Wageningen is CEO of Orange Business in Russia and CIS and is the Head the IMEAR (Indirect, Middle East, Africa and Russia) region. He has extensive leadership experience in the IT and telecommunications industries – both in services and equipment manufacturing – and holds degrees from Groningen State Polytechnics and the University of North Carolina. Richard has lived in Russia for more than 10 years and speaks fluent Russian.