Posted: 4th September 2019
If you’ve been to any shipping conference in the last few years, I’m sure you can agree that they’ve been dominated by ‘D’ words. Digitalisation, data (much of it big), and most recently, disruption. You may well have come away from these events thinking that many of these concepts are exciting, and full of potential – but subsequently got back to your desk and felt like the gleaming, autonomous, futuristic vision that’s being promised in the promotional videos etc. doesn’t quite match up with your day-to-day reality. If this is the case, you’re in good company.
Many companies, while acknowledging the importance of digitalisation, are far behind when it comes to implementation. According to Reed Smith, 40% of shipping executives see big data as the most significant driver of change for the industry – more so than blockchain, or environmental technology. However, in 2018, Seatrade reported that only around nine per cent saw big data as a current part of their operations.
So what’s the hold up? What needs to happen in between getting excited about new technology, and actually using it to do something useful?
At V.Group, we see the most important factors behind digitalisation as operational rather than technological. Digital technology needs to fit the frontline services it’s here to support, and deliver for customers. While many in the industry talk excitedly about artificial intelligence, many solutions that could make a huge difference involve simple automation, rather than AI, for example. Similarly, while big data is undoubtedly valuable, accurately collecting, and acting on, smaller datasets can be just as useful. In both these instances, the type of technology that delivers for customers if not always the one that’s receiving the most hype.
The missing key to success is being able to collect quality data and drive the behaviour that leads to change. DNV-GL recently claimed that data quality was the number one problem for its data platform Veracity, attesting that “the market for data quality dwarfs the market for big data.” Despite the technology being available, it’s integrating it into the operation of a vessel that proves challenging for suppliers who focus only on the technology. It’s a bit like getting a personal training and diet plan app. Downloading the app is easy. Using it effectively, on the other hand, can be a lot more difficult.
This is why we, as ship managers, are making sure that we embrace our positions at the crossroads of data exchange between crew and our frontline fleet cells, and our ability to effect change based on data that impacts not just technical, but commercial operations. As we are already embedded in the ship-to-shore conversation, we can not only ensure that accurate data is collected, but acted on. We can use the data to set meaningful goals and KPIs, and iterate accordingly. In doing so, we’re equipping our fleet cells with the best possible tools to deliver for our customers.
So, why isn’t everyone doing this already? One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is access to accurate data. Functionality and features are important, but not the hardest problems to fix from a software or hardware engineering standpoint. V.Group’s ability to embed big data tools in the operation of the vessel and the operation of the technical management, and being able to ensure that their the data is captured well, is far more important than having a glossy front end. While we do have live dashboards and metrics so we can see what’s happened, we can also identify what’s going on, police behaviours, and make sure that quality data is being entered. This is essential; otherwise, the only output is pretty charts that will never work because no-one is entering the data accurately in the first place, so they are fundamentally flawed.
This marks an evolution in our role as a ship manager. Traditionally, purely “technical” managers have focussed only on technical management of a vessel – making sure that the vessel is properly maintained, safe, and meets specifications, while a separate group would focus on the commercial management of a vessel. This classic approach has been in place for so long because it’s not easy; ships are moving factories, and keeping them safe and operational is a big job.
Now, however, there is potential to offer a much higher value service to the owner if managers can use data to optimise a ship’s commercial performance. We can now set goals that are much more performance based; they are about compliance with your voyage and charter party and how well the vessel’s main engines are performing from a fuel optimisation point of view. We’re looking at how your vessel is performing against your contractual obligations. Whether it’s your charter party agreement, how you’re doing commercially with your voyage or how your main machinery, auxiliary machinery and hull are all performing. An example recommendation might be “Look, we can spend some money on hull cleaning, which is a good investment because we’re gathering data that says we can improve hull performance – which equals improved pool points”.
Despite this potential, many people see digitalisation and adoption of data as a potential threat – that somehow digitalisation will replace the trusted expertise of seafarers and shore-based staff. We don’t tend to see it that way – in many ways, our role as a manger is to facilitate intelligent conversations about performance. ShipSure, our data platform allows for these conversations to be had between the fleet cell and the onboard team about what is actually happening on board that vessel. We can help them to have intelligent conversations about the weather ahead, for example, and what to do next. Our data platform, ShipSure, is what allows us as a management company, to facilitate this dialogue and combine knowledge between crews ashore and afloat – not tell them how to do their jobs.
Integrating ‘intelligent’ functionality to this system would largely involve automation more of the collection and reaction to data – creating a layer of automated activity. A technical superintendent can say ‘you’ve got five bits of critical maintenance overdue’ – AI can do also that. You can also automate problem diagnosis. Much of what comes out looking like AI is actually automation – but if you’re not embedded in the day-to-day operations, it won’t work.
Ultimately, digitalisation doesn’t change our fundamental role as ship managers, regardless of the talk of disruption and sweeping changes. We’re here to facilitate intelligent conversations about what’s best for a ship and its crew, and that’s how we ensure we’re delivering the best possible service for our customers. ShipSure is the platform that enables us to do that – to not only find the data that matters, but to use it to drive better technical and commercial performance for our customers.