Digitalisation: the future of the shipping industry

Over a couple of decades ago, I suppose, I came across a piece of news. It was about the report of an expert committee appointed by a government of that time to find solutions to the problems of the 21st century. I do not remember the content or the findings of the committee’s report, but the remarks made by some of its members, while presenting their findings, have stuck with me forever. Though not verbatim, it was something like this. 

“When we were assigned the task, we were not entirely certain what was expected of the group and what kind of solutions we were looking for. We were, to begin with, not even aware what the problems were for which we were asked to find solutions. Initially the task looked daunting. As we started interacting with each other, we began to understand the problems of an ever-evolving society and the solutions that explosive technological advances can offer. Every one of us has become a child, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that all of us felt like Alice in Wonderland”. 

Well, I guess these words hold good today too. With rapid strides – in fact, giant leaps – technology has advanced and already altered in a big way the way business is conducted around the world today. The few changes we can immediately think of are the way we shop, travel, dine out, communicate and many other domestic activities. Some of the ideas which were considered outrageous a couple of decades ago are reality today. During this recent pandemic, technology came to rescue and dramatically altered the way people work and conduct their business. Though a little late in adapting, Shipping too has certainly embraced the new technological developments. 

Digitalisation in the shipping industry is going to gather momentum and is likely to eliminate human intervention in most processes. In the nascent stages of my career at sea I have seen a Japanese vessel using computer-controlled collapsible sails to supplement propulsion. With governments across the globe firm on phasing out fossil fuel usage, it is obvious that this kind of alternative would soon emerge. It will, probably, not entirely eliminate fossil fuels, but it will reduce consumption and the resultant carbon footprint. Machinery diagnostics will be totally digitalised and handled remotely from a control centre. An algorithm will perhaps analyse the entire data much more efficiently, swiftly, and more importantly, accurately. Such analytics would then operate the machinery or system concerned more optimally and economically and in an eco-friendly manner. Analytics-based dynamic maintenance plans will, in all likelihood, replace the present fixed time interval-based plans. Though the latter are prevalent even today, the element of human intervention makes them inconsistent and prone to judgmental errors. A lesser amount of human intervention may even result in a safer environment.

The dynamic maintenance plan, when linked to the on-board spares inventory, will run through the spares list and place orders for required spares before scheduling any corrective or preventive maintenance. This can effectively reduce dead inventory and bring down the associated costs. Even the logistics connected to procuring and delivering spares to the vessel will experience a dramatic shift. Efficient algorithms will determine the requirements, place orders, track those orders and direct them to a central warehouse and also track the vessel’s trading patterns and arrange delivery to it efficiently and economically. Deliveries to vessels by drones may become the rule rather than the exception. 

Seafarers, the all-important arm of the shipping industry, are likely to see a very major change in the tasks that they are routinely expected to carry out. The hierarchy as it exists today may become irrelevant. Every seafarer will probably need to retool himself/herself with some new skill sets. Some traditional present-day practices may eventually become superfluous. Tasks like machinery operation and maintenance, navigational practices too may go through a tectonic shift. A command centre located at a remote corner of the globe will perhaps take over the task of navigating the ship across and along the waterways of the world. The navigating officers on board, if any, will probably become mere observers or facilitators. If autonomous cars on chaotic streets of metropolises are no longer a pipe dream, then autonomous ships in a highly regulated and disciplined industry like shipping will only be a matter of  ‘when’. 

Every seafarer’s data, such as experience, health, skill-set, competency level, psychometrics, endurance, exposure to types of vessels etc will be analysed by algorithms. When a need arises, each candidate’s available data will be analysed and the most suitable person available will be picked for the job. Here too, human intervention may become history. Logistics involving planning of crew changes, travel arrangements, additional training needs, certification requirements, vaccinations, PPE required for various types of work etc will in all likelihood be handled by artificial intelligence. 

As with many shore-based industries, for people associated with shipping the job scope and requirements are likely to become very dynamic. This would probably lead to constant learning and upgrading of skill sets, and in some cases complete reinvention of them. 

The possibilities are endless. Technology is making advances at the speed of light. Stopping short of making ships a redundant mode of mass transportation of goods, evolving technology can significantly alter or redefine the dynamics of an all-important industry. It would not be an exaggeration to say that inevitable change is impeded only by humans adopting and accepting the changes that new technologies can usher in. But with endless opportunities come equal numbers of threats. With a high amount of digitalisation, despite robust security systems, ships in general and the industry in particular can become vulnerable to cyber-attacks and disruptions. 

All this will be possible only when there is global will and the greed for power and/or money is set aside in favour of sustainable, all-inclusive environmentally friendly growth.

    C/E Prasad Chennuri “M.T. Virgen De La Aurora”