Maritime Pioneers Show How Digital Collaboration Can Work

Laurent Hentges

Published Dec 13, 2023 5:02 PM by Bureau Veritas


[By Laurent Hentges, Vice-President, Digital Solutions & Transformation, Bureau Veritas Marine & Offshore]

It should be viewed as an opportunity that shipping is simultaneously confronting the challenges of digitalization and decarbonization. The former can enable the latter, but to fully achieve its potential we need to break technical, legal, financial and cultural barriers, according to new research from Bureau Veritas and Thetius.

Shipping is responsible for nearly three percent of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions and faces some imminent, mandated deadlines for reducing its contribution to climate change. Bringing the industry to net zero is a challenge far beyond what any individual company can achieve on its own.

Change of this magnitude requires collaborative effort and digitalization is a key enabler — potential emissions reductions of up to 15 percent can be achieved through interpretation and use of the right data. Some industry pioneers are already leading the way and collectively reaping the benefits.

But, as detailed in Common Interest, a new white paper written by Thetius and commissioned by Bureau Veritas, to expand this success to the industry as a whole, we need to address some major obstacles.

The potential of data

Success at scale requires competing parties to recognize unifying goals and accept more data sharing, enabling better decisions and reducing, for instance, port waiting times.

To begin with, we need to define which data is useful, and then decide how we use it.

The potential of data breaks down into distinct areas. Starting with the vessel itself, applications from companies such as NAPA provide performance models based on a ship’s propulsive characteristics, hull form and dimensions, and the effects of biofouling. That knowledge drives fundamental design choices as well as operational best practices including voyage optimization.

For collaboration to work, stakeholders have to speak the same data ‘language’. Companies such as Opsealog (which has identified a collective €2.4 trillion opportunity from collaborative decarbonization) and OrbitMI have sought to bring manual processes, such as the updating of ships’ logs, into the electronic realm. This has the effect of standardizing entry, removing human subjectivity, and making data more accessible in order to extract insights that can boost efficiency.

At sea, there have been numerous attempts to tackle the “rush to wait” phenomenon, and they all require data. The consortium-led Blue Visby solution, for example, uses a digital platform to assign optimal arrival times to otherwise unconnected ships heading for common destinations, together with a contractual architecture and a sharing mechanism to encourage adoption.

Ports have also been busy looking at ways to enable “Just in Time” (JIT) arrivals by doing so in a digital environment. The Singapore MPA’s digitalPORT@SGTM has taken a phased approach to JIT harmonization of port arrivals. This has included setting up common APIs for all users and led to Singapore and China piloting data exchanges of 25 types of ships certificates for port clearance and state control.

Addressing key challenges

While the potential of digital collaboration is clear, Common Interest describes a “network optimization problem” where numerous issues stand in the way of change. The report identifies four main challenges to effective data sharing and progressing both decarbonization and digitalization: competition laws; data siloes; cultural and behavioral resistance; and cost.

For a start, many businesses remain reluctant to openly share data, although sharing some data with trade partners/the wider supply chain is increasingly common and enables competitive advantage to be retained. However, challenges arise where international trade bodies prohibit anti-competitive agreements, even where decarbonization is the aim. Successive legislative updates are providing greater clarity, but currently, it is recommended that legal advice be sought before entering any data-sharing or collaborative arrangements.

Siloing — the collection of data without a cohesive integration strategy, or its storage/control by a single entity in a way that makes it inaccessible to others — can needlessly restrict access even for those with legitimate interests. Liberating data has time, effort and cost implications, and there is the potential to introduce errors when syndicating. The first step is getting data onto common platforms. Market-ready solutions exist that can do this and the use of standardized exchange mechanisms is becoming increasingly common.

Addressing cultural and behavioral resistance requires effective change management. Pragmatism and adaptability are key to understanding how strategic objectives will influence frontline operations. A two-way dialogue is especially important in digital technology design; a 2022 Thetius survey found that 40 percent of crew members who worked at sea with digital technology did not believe that it had been optimized for their needs.

The cost of data gathering, storage, processing and sharing is another potential obstacle, but this can be significantly reduced if suitable market-ready solutions are used. Furthermore, digital technologies offer significant returns on investment — up to 81 percent, according to Lenovo — and maritime-focused studies have shown that 71 percent of shipowners/managers see cost reduction as a prime driver of digitalization. 

Next steps

In a commercial capacity, shipping is already experienced in trading under bilateral contractual arrangements. P&I clubs, slot-sharing and tanker pools demonstrate how mutual interest has prevailed, and over 95 percent of East-West containership capacity is controlled through alliances.

Now, we have to translate that collaborative mindset into new areas. We should start by leveling the technological playing field, ensuring that digitalization does not just remain the preserve of the most resource-rich carriers.

Today, the proliferation of Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSAT) satellite technology is fuelling demand for access to new digital products and services at sea. Take-up is accelerating — according to Euroconsult, there were 37,000 VSAT-equipped vessels in operation in 2022, up 42 percent from 2018, and it predicts that 90,000 vessels will be equipped by 2032. Meanwhile, Low Earth Orbit satellite constellations such as Starlink and OneWeb will further underpin opportunities for more sophisticated maritime data-driven services.

Levelling-up includes continuing roll-out of high-speed maritime connectivity, and we need to look at how and why we do things. ‘Sail fast then wait’, for instance, comes from an age when vessels could be out of communication for several weeks – and today the practice is still incentivized by contractual arrangements.

Perpetuating older practices makes diminishing sense, especially when technology exists to change things for the better.

Delivering realities

Undoubtedly, the global shipping industry is committed to making up lost ground when it comes to digitalization. However, complex problem-solving relies on converting data into insight and then into action, and we have to recognize shipping’s vastness and complexity.

In an industry where 80 percent of data goes unused, 80 percent of ports still rely on manual, analogue processes to manage day-to-day tasks, and 70 percent of the addressable fleet is owned by companies operating fewer than 15 vessels, consolidating data and sharing insight throughout the ecosystem is key.

As Common Interest shows, the time, technology, and trading environment are right to use data collaboratively to evolve and grow. Shipping can choose to achieve its goals for decarbonization and modernization not as a regulatory box-ticking exercise, but as a proactive, future-facing, and responsible industrial sector.

Laurent Hentges is Vice-President, Digital Solutions & Transformation, Bureau Veritas Marine & Offshore

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