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Wilhelmsen Looks to the Future of Maritime

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By Nor-Shipping 2019-01-07 13:32:16

Thomas Wilhelmsen, the CEO of the Wilhelmsen group of companies, wants his firm to lead from the front with a smart balance of innovation and tradition. The diversified company has been serving the industry for nearly 160 years, and it is building on its history with investments in the latest technology: it just launched the world’s first autonomous shipping firm, Massterly, as well as Raa Labs, a maritime digital start-up.

“There’s been a lot of focus on Massterly, our drone developments, smart rope, 3D printing etc., and on one level that’s excellent,” says Wilhelmsen. “But it’s hard-core, practical and operational maritime competency that forms the foundation of this business. What we want to do is take that conventional platform and utilize new digital skills to build upon it, positioning ourselves to take advantage of future business opportunity.”

43-year-old Thomas Wilhelmsen is the head of one of maritime’s biggest names. The group has close to 15,000 employees, of which over 9,000 are seafarers. Wilhelmsen Ship Management serves nearly 400 vessels globally, and Wilhelmsen Ships Service handles about 75,000 ports calls and 210,000 product deliveries per year, serving about half of the entire global merchant fleet. In other words, Mr. Wilhelmsen has a strong foundation to build on.

Autonomous innovation

Massterly, a joint initiative with KONGSBERG, was one of 2018’s biggest announcements. The company aims to establish the infrastructure and services needed to design and operate autonomous vessels, creating a network of land-based control centers to monitor and operate a new breed of ships. The first will be based at Wilhelmsen's group headquarters in Oslo.

“If we want to help shape the future of the industry, not just this business, we have to position ourselves at the vanguard of development,” he explains. “Autonomous shipping may seem like a distant dream, but, through projects such as the Yara Birkeland, it will be a reality, albeit on a limited scale, very soon. There’s a need for the infrastructure and solutions to support that development.”

“If we can play a key role in enabling developments we can also help inform and mould regulations, using our expertise and experience to steer a course for the future,” he adds.

While autonomous shipping will be primarily seen in short-sea applications for the near future, the technology has multiple applications for manned ocean-going vessels. “The industry will be able to cherry pick relevant systems out of the autonomous domain and install them on existing vessels, enabling next generation conventional shipping,” Wilhelmsen says. “So we shouldn’t be looking at autonomy in isolation, but rather as a facilitator for nurturing wider development. There’s always going to be a need for maritime skill, for real operational understanding. From the design phase through to operations, people need to feed in individual expertise of stability, navigation, loading and discharging, a whole range of different scenarios. That knowledge doesn’t stand in opposition to digital competency, it helps inform it. As an industry we can’t afford to overlook the ‘old fashioned’ skills, they must be valued and preserved.”

Internal start-up

At the end of November Wilhelmsen announced the launch of Raa Labs. Backed by a $2 million seed investment, split between the Wilhelmsen group and Wallenius Wilhelmsen, Raa Labs aims to deliver digital solutions to meet industry challenges and realize opportunities, for both Wilhelmsen itself and external customers.

“We’d been scratching our heads a little about how to open up and create a ‘start-up’ culture, one where we can move quickly to really seize on digital and tech prospects,” Wilhelmsen explains. “We came to the conclusion that our own start-up was the solution. An entity that could serve our business areas, but also design digital infrastructure and applications for outside customers, helping them better utilize their data or, for example, enable collaboration or improve environmental performance. It’s a digital accelerator the whole industry can use.”

So far Raa has recruited seven team members who, Wilhelmsen says, would never have otherwise considered a career in the maritime industry. “I’m a little amazed we have attracted digital experts of this caliber,” he says. “But they understand that shipping is a huge industry with huge potential for digital. As such they can make a genuine difference.”

Positive but cautious outlook

Wilhelmsen is looking forward to Nor-Shipping, the industry conference taking place June 4-7, 2019 in Lillestrøm and Oslo, as it “brings the global industry to Norway, showcasing our reputation for innovation and providing a key forum for discussions, ideas and doing business.”

“Maritime expertise will be key to generating value from, as well as managing and regulating, the commercial use of ocean space in the future. So Nor-Shipping can play an important role as a platform for enabling developments,” Wilhelmsen says.

However, he sees clouds on the horizon over the year ahead. Wilhelmsen believes that the maritime industry is “deep into an up-cycle,” raising concerns of a future correction. “You can see uncertainty creeping into the stock markets. And trade wars and tariffs are obviously not good for this industry. That said, there aren’t that many people who would favor stopping world trade, so I believe, I hope, that common sense will prevail,” he says.

Given these macroeconomic concerns, Wilhelmsen is exercising caution with regards to group expansion. “I think the immediate focus will be on organic development,” he concludes. “We’ll aim to nurture and grow all parts of the portfolio. There’s no one standalone area I’d like to pinpoint as a potential star performer, but I do think we’ll use our group strength to continue growing, delivering the value and standards we’re known for, and the innovation we believe can help shape this industry.”

And that, at the end of the day, is a well balanced approach.

For more information on Nor-Shipping 2019, please visit http://www.nor-shipping.com/.

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