Bringing Ship Managers and Owners Together Through Digitalization

Image courtesy V.Group

Published Jun 14, 2018 9:47 AM by Stephen MacFarlane

Shipping has been toying with digitalization since the turn of the century. E-procurement was the first step into the digital world for many ship owners and managers, but overall, it did not deliver on its potential of being a game changer, due somewhat to a fragmented technology landscape and an industry that was lagging behind with systems to tap into the e-procurement benefits. Fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century, and we are at last seeing maritime digitalization take a firm grip. The reasons for this are many and varied.

From a technical standpoint, satellite communication is starting to deliver the global coverage needed to act as a reliable and affordable infrastructure for moving data from ship to shore and vice versa. There are also more stakeholders, such as flag states or cargo owners, seeking to leverage value from data and digitalization. Likewise, regulatory and environmental issues puts increasing pressure on ship operators and making more data available across an organisation can relieve some of this. The challenging and cyclical market, where vessel and fleet efficiency is everything, is also a primary driver for adoption of digitalization in shipping.

Today, the maritime industry has a far greater understanding of the value of data, so the community of people looking to improve business and operations using it is growing significantly. And while tantalisingly close for over a decade, we are now at a stage where communications technology can ensure that data from vessels and fleets trading practically anywhere is always available. But data is only a means to an end; it’s the insight that can be gained from data that provides the real value of digitalization. The ship owner, their operations team and their customers can all benefit from data driven insight. Ship managers, take note.

Breaking down barriers

It’s well understood that some ship owners prefer to manage their vessel and fleets in-house. The arguments against outsourcing are, on the face of it, sound. It’s perceived by some that employing a third party to manage marine assets may result in a loss of control and oversight, caused by a lack of transparency. The arguments, rightly or wrongly, have existed ever since the dawn of ship management as a service. Of course, a ship owner cannot optimise operations or maximise ROI if they don’t know what is happening with their fleet. The counter argument is that an experienced ship manager or marine services company will always ensure that clients are informed of all aspects of their work. But digitalization is enabling this to go one step further, by providing a completely joined-up, real-time approach to ship management and the data it generates.

Using an integrated marine digital platform, digitalization not only demonstrates that ship owners can stay in control when using a ship management service, it can give them even more control than they would have if managing their own vessels in house. A single source ship manager will operate on four core pillars – marine operations, procurement, crewing and finance. Within these are countless sub-tasks that are the basis of running a safe, compliant and effective fleet on behalf of clients. Everything generates data, which, in order to provide the control and transparency desired, must be delivered in real time to the ship owner’s teams. With that data available in real-time, on a single platform and interface, it can be used to generate significant insight that will drive informed decision making.

Take for instance the case of a ship owner’s finance team. Their lifeblood is data but the traditional, non-integrated workflow can lead to data insights that may be 8-115 days after month-end. With an integrated digital platform, the data is updated by design as a continuous stream, 24/7, ensuring that finance specialists have a complete picture as it is happening. Not only this, but integrated with real-time data from marine operations, procurement and crewing, further insight can be gained on the financial health of a business.

In house management or ship managers not able to provide this data driven insight on a contemporary digital platform are likely using diverse, separate and unconnected systems for the management of i.e., planned maintenance, crewing, finances systems and inventory. The owner will get the data needed from all of these processes and systems at some stage, but it could be ring-fenced, standalone and importantly, not always available without setting a request off through a chain of people and departments. With a digital platform, it’s possible to cut right through the middle of that chain and get a holistic, integrated and real-time view of everything. This can hand the best possible control and transparency to the shipowner, not only in the context of proving that arguments against outsourcing ship management don’t hold much weight, but actually delivering far more value for a business than can be generated by in-house management.

Data on the move

Operational, regulatory, financial and environmental pressures are all creating a thirst for insight and information, which is driving the maritime industry to take digitalization seriously, and there is no application that can enjoy the benefit of continuous data more than ship management. As a major marine service company, V.Group recognised the critical role that digitalization has in enabling high-quality vessel and fleet operations early, so has invested heavily to offer even greater control and transparency by connecting all aspects of its business with clients, on a single digital platform called ShipSure 2.0. Using real-time, transparent views with all data on how V.Group manages vessels, clients have the ability to gain an overview or look at diverse areas to a granular level, helping them to make decisions that improve the performance of their assets.

But we are working in an ecosystem where shipping is part of a wider global supply chain, so we must participate and cannot sit in isolation. This is where digitalization can show its full potential. If data can deliver significant insight and tangible ROI, what use is it, if it is only available when you are in the office? In the 24/7 non-stop world of global trade, success comes from mobility and flexibility so having access to the same data available in the office on mobile devices globally is the final step to truly realise the potential of digitalization in the world of ship management.

Mobile access to data is essential for real-time management of vessels, fleets and business, but the technical challenges of a ship manager providing it are not insignificant, as commercial off the shelf solutions are not easily customised for maritime users. The 100% in-house development of ShipSure 2.0 with a cloud based service architecture and ownership of the complete IT stack however, has enabled V.Group to offer full mobile access to data. Building on the original Windows version, ShipSure 2.0 can now be accessed across multiple platforms including on both iOS and Android smartphones and tablets anywhere in the world. Based on a new touch screen interface, the ShipSure 2.0 mobile application is not simply a watered-down companion app to the desktop system – it is a full blown portable platform, using the same real-time data generated through V.Group’s complete marine services portfolio.

In a dynamic and challenging market, ship owners have to make a choice between in-house or external management partnerships. By outsourcing with the right partner, the owner can focus on the market and in today’s digital environment be sure of control and transparency. With mobile and on-demand direct access to data in the cloud platform to business-critical real time information from a ship management company, owners and their teams will always know that their vessels are safe and efficient and that they are in regulatory compliance. They can check the status of any procurement or maintenance projects and have complete oversight of accounts and budgeting. Not to mention availability of crew lists. Digitalization has provided the counter-argument for retaining management of ships in-house by negating the control and transparency concerns. With this, the huge potential for vessels, fleets and ship owner organisations themselves to perform better has been completely unlocked.

Stephen MacFarlane is the CIO of V.Group. He holds an MBA from OU Business School and is a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute (FCMI).

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.