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Let’s not get in the way of the digital future.

With COVID-19, shipping—like the rest of the world—is facing an unprecedented upheaval and a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.

The sector’s adoption of digitalization has been fragmented to date, but this black-swan event can be the catalyst to drive the industry to make the most out of its data and reap the rewards of digitalization.

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged the global economy to adapt to an uncertain new normal. The pandemic has sent the oil sector into a tailspin, every country is braced for economic recession, and shipping is seeking to adapt its operations in a dynamic and fluid situation.

The crisis has prompted shipping to react with innovation. Already, port authorities are reducing face-to-face contact with new technologies that will also improve efficiency in the long run. Increasing real-time reporting—much of which can be analyzed from shore—is also proving its worth.

Fleet monitoring and optimization take on a new light in these changing times. With acute economic strain, understanding the deployment, routes and every detail of each vessel voyage becomes even more important to underpin the global supply chain.

These are positive steps for digitalization within the sector as a whole. Over the last few years, shipping’s desire to digitalize has been set back by numerous obstacles, such as the market’s traditional skepticism, future-gazing rather than focusing on what works and what seafarers need, and technologies being implemented without a clear focus—and therefore not delivering their claimed benefits.

In the simplest terms, the maritime industry’s overall digitalization effort has yet to fulfill its potential. There are many who have still not fully understood, and fully embraced, all the opportunities and advantages that digitalization provides.

Because of mismatched approaches and fragmented data utilization, digitalization has often made things worse for professionals working on ships and at shore alike. In particular, increasing enterprise-wide data and information demands require too much manual intervention and effort. Bear in mind that high levels of activity do not always equal productivity.

This particularly impacts shipowners and operators and the seafarers on board, who are often affected the most by market changes. To make meaningful and impactful operational decisions, they are now forced to laboriously gather data from a number of siloed applications and platforms spanning vessel and shore-side offices. Ultimately, this means that the efficiency gains of digitalization are not being realized because cross-comparison of data comes up short.  

Furthermore, our sector is one with particular demands. Data cannot possibly be understood using generic “business intelligence” software. We, instead, must look to champion bespoke applications for shipping that offer maritime domain-specific functionality.

Importantly, these applications must co-exist and work together on holistic platforms, allowing data to be unified and understood for the benefits of digitalization to be truly unlocked.

This simple roadmap—of interoperability, functionality and holistic platforms—gives a clear path forward for shipping. It throws down a gauntlet for digital providers and pioneers to help the market reap the rewards of this transformative trend.

We must take a long-term view of the challenges we face. By committing to this digital evolution in the right way, shipping can gain short-term advantages against the current crisis and secure its long-term future. This future could be one of unprecedented efficiency and optimization; the onus is now on all of us to grasp this opportunity and make it a reality.  

This article was originally posted on Sea Technology Magazine.

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