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The Curious Case of the Missing Ship

The Curious Case of the Missing Ship

Many ports are getting smarter, but ships are not yet fully-integrated into most smart port collaboration platforms.  Matt Kenney takes a look at why, and asks what shipping can do to bridge the divide.

Earlier this year I attended a port innovation symposium where an international group of port and technology thought leaders discussed current and future trends in digital port operations.

I listened to speakers describe port collaboration systems, port community systems, terminal operating systems, and the transposition of data into new, more secure formats like blockchain. All of these technologies are convening, if not yet conspiring, to deliver solutions for the lean, digitally-enabled maritime supply chain of tomorrow. Although opinions differed on methods and timescales, the speakers did agree on the notion that we are amidst a tectonic shift in port value chains. Enabled by Industry 4.0, this shift will bring new efficiencies to the quayside, hailing a fundamental change in attitude towards intermodal port supply chain partners.

However, as the discussions began to conclude, I sensed something was amiss. Indeed, I felt there was an elephant in the room: a top-level, international collective of thought leaders from the cutting edge of port technology and innovation, had astonishingly, failed to mention one word: ‘Ship’!

It Takes Two To ‘Port-Call’

Should I have been surprised? Afterall, the conference was about port innovation, not ship innovation.  Nonetheless, with my curiosity piqued, I seized the opportunity to ask: “How does the panel envisage, in practical terms, integrating the ships into centralised smart port communities?”

The reply was surprising:  “Tackling the problem of plugging ships into smart port systems remains beyond the current strategy for most ports”  because in essence: “ports are yet to see sufficient and demonstrable ROI to invest in this issue at this time.”

In other words, ports are getting smarter in parallel with the ships they serve but not yet in unison, simply because investment of this kind must be linked to a tangible return.  Aside from those taking responsibility for stack emissions generated by visiting ships, ports are unlikely to benefit considerably from ships operating to more efficient schedules so don’t see it as an investment worth making. Whether a ship is slow steaming to meet a just-in-time berth, or sat in the anchorage for 12 hours is of little consequence to a port – at least when it comes to who pays to explore the problem.

The result is that while ports take great strides towards their own fully digitalised futures, ships are left to fend for themselves.  However, shipping is an inextricable part of the smart port conundrum. While ports should be applauded for their efforts, would it not be foolish of ship owners to assume that sufficient optimisation gains can be leached from ‘trickle-down’ gains resulting from a port operator’s investment in optimisation technology?

A new approach

Reacting to rising market forces and regulation, the ports industry is beginning to see itself as a fully integrated part of an end-to-end supply chain, acknowledging that the whole chain suffers as a collective from the inefficiencies of its constituent parts.  There is evidence that ship operators are too, with initiatives such as Tradelens from Maersk, and the rise of IOT reefer tracking for beneficial cargo owners.

The digital age is about customer service and value proposition. Ports are asking how they can better serve their users, finding better ways to integrate with their supply chain partners, and (tentatively) considering how data sharing might improve matters even further. Despite there being a long way to go, there is evidence that, driven by technology, the value proposition in port operations is changing.

Square peg, round hole?

There is a clear mandate for addressing how ships could be better integrated into the smart port. Not least because shipping is such a critical link in the supply chain, and because it is extremely costly in monetary and environmental terms to continue to accept current levels of inefficiency in the sector. So why can’t we just plug ships in to smart port community and collaboration systems, and have ships running in synchronicity with the terminals and terrestrial hinterland for the benefit of all?

In short, there are one or two port-centric platforms who are aiming to do just that.  But, there are some significant barriers to achieving a widespread solution this way:

  • Data standards:  What data, to how many decimal places, in which unit of measurement, in which data language, in which computer environment should information be exchanged?  What file formats should be used? How do we recognise genuine and correct data from corrupt, incomplete or malicious data? The global strategy is still very much in its infancy on this, despite recent progress (see The Single Window)
  • Proprietary system compatibility:  Related to data standards, the issue of ships using one system at one port, before voyaging to a different port, on a different continent, using different systems, means that there is unlikely to ever be a port-centric optimisation system that ship owners can roll out to an entire fleet on all routes.
  • Politics:  Simply, there will always be examples where the technology of one country will be unacceptable for use in another, and that is before the issue of flag states is considered.
  • Cyber Security:  Opening digital gateways to ships as they arrive and depart smart ports poses cyber security threats which may not yet be fully understood.

Despite these and many other challenges – some of which I would argue are several years from being solved, there is a tangible global impetus to make progress.

The single window

On April 8th 2019, the issue of bridging the gap between smart ships and smart ports gained momentum as the IMO introduced new electronic data exchange requirements in to the Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL) Convention.  Now a legal requirement in all 121 signatory nations, the convention is aimed at streamlining national reporting for ships. The ‘single window’ approach, where data is exchanged once and disseminated electronically, neatly frames the concept of electronic data exchange formatting, and catalyses the opportunity for standardised formats to be used for commercial, as well as compliance, purposes.

Ships as nodes

So, regulation and market drivers are pushing the envelope on integrating smart ships in to smart ports, but port-centric solutions have some significant barriers to success – especially in the tramp and spot markets where routes and destinations vary wildly.

Does that mean we are as-yet unable to make the ship in to a useful node in a globalised digital supply chain network?  Absolutely not – it just requires a shift in approach.

If the ship can digitalise the port call process onboard, and utilise this capability in any port in any part of the world, then ship operators reap the benefits too, and all that is required to collaborate with the supply chain on this information is a safe and effective way of sharing the data.

The digital human

Web-based user interfacing is one solution; by displaying the data on a human-friendly dashboard, and providing controlled access to users that would derive value from it.  In this case, the human provides the translation service between the ship and the smart port system, negating the need for digital gateways and surmounting format compatibility problems.  The IMO FAL convention, mentioned above, already provides a protocol for much of the information when being processed by a human being in this way.

It is my belief that, empowered by digital information, humans will continue to be the vital link between ship and shore for the foreseeable future while new digital standards and platforms are developed to further automate the process in the coming years.  And so it should be – ships are crewed by talented and capable people, who, if empowered to drive new efficiency by new digital tools, can prove extremely effective in enabling change.

In summary

It is not only imperative that port authorities continue to evaluate how shipping can be better integrated as a constituent of smart port communities, but it is vital for ship owners and operators to explore how best to liberate and digitalise ship data for the benefit of the whole supply chain.  For now, humans provide a critical link, and given the right tools, can prove a major catalyst for digital change.


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