How technology is making sea freight management plain sailing. By James Woodall

For all the centuries of technological improvements that have redefined how we operate as a society, there are few industries as ancient as the movement of goods across our oceans. It is one of the world’s oldest methods of transportation, and the basic blueprint hasn’t changed – load goods on ship, sail to destination, deposit goods, repeat. For all the advances in other forms of transportation, 90 per cent of the world’s trade is facilitated by shipping of one form or another.

While the sea freight industry has yet to fully realise the benefits of digitalisation compared to its land-based cousins, it is slowly but surely embracing the many technologies that have been developed for its advancement. So much so that, according to the Royal Institute of Naval Architects, crewless vessels carrying oil and heavier cargo will be arriving in ten to 15 years. Some manufacturers, like Rolls-Royce, believe they can deliver this even sooner. Other areas of improvement are in emissions reduction and improving the ships themselves – their speed, their sophistication, and their integration with other technologies. One particular aspect that has seen considerable improvements in recent years, both in the technology and its deployment, is cargo management.

Technology, on-board
Given the potential benefits, it’s not hard to see why this area has taken off in such a spectacular fashion. After all, ensuring the right items are on board at the right time and delivered to the right place is the least businesses should expect from sea freight operators. But it hasn’t always been the case – far from it in fact. But today there are solutions that allow freight teams both on and off the ship to have complete and real-time visibility of what is on board.

The same technology is also proving integral to the vessels themselves. Specifically, around maintenance and repair of machinery. This is having a huge impact in terms of reducing emergency deliveries or diverting to port for repairs. It is also leading to improvements in the audit process. Today, maintenance checks can be intelligently scheduled that help to avoid downtime or service failures. Immediate access to metadata, photos and video can prove work has been carried out in the right way, at the right time and in the right location.

This is having a positive knock-on impact on people too. As a result of the more detailed and qualified on-board checks, health and safety standards have improved. New staff taken on in different ports for different legs of journeys now have clear and consistent work instructions to follow, reducing training time and mistakes. Of course, this accurate and qualified data also has vastly improved decision making, supporting procurement in agreeing better deals and avoiding unnecessary spend.

Use case: Keeping stock of stock
One of the world’s biggest oil and gas producers had major issues with how it was handling its inventory of on-board parts for repairs and maintenance across its range of vessels. Due to the complexity of systems and time consuming manual processes, very few stock checks were taking place – causing all manner of problems. The monetary value and number of spares on each vessel was not known, which made restocking problematic, while urgent spares were being air-freighted around the world when they were actually already available on the ship. Other linked issues included back offices difficulties for the supply chain, and problems in procurement when it came to bulk purchase benefits and ensuring the right products were being ordered for the right vessels.

To address the challenge, the company trialled a digital workflow technology that ran across 40 vessels, specifically adapted for the task. The system was linked to smartphones to run stock checks on ship and supported with a real-time data analytics dashboard. The on-ship server was immediately updated with stock check results, providing a 100 per cent accurate position of all on-board stock items. The difference was quickly realised when the crew were able to scan 1500 parts in 350 locations in less than two days with a massive improvement in accuracy.

The technology quickly led to improved decision making through the ability to view accurate and qualified data analytics. Now, the company has a macro view of operations down to individual and immediate actions, seeing exactly how long audits and stock checks take, whether by vessel or location. This has vastly improved decision making, planning staff work, time to release vessels and releasing staff to complete other more important tasks. Ultimately, confidence is now much higher as the problem of being on-sea without the right components has been resolved which means expensive last minute deliveries or diverting to port are a thing of the past. The forecast is that this solution will save the company between $5m and $10m over five years in better stock management, procurement, vessel operation and overall efficiency.

How far can cargo go?
While the history between the two isn’t a pretty one, to say we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg as far as freight technology is concerned would be an understatement. We’ve barely scratched the surface. No one technology will transform the industry but instead we’ll see the interplay and overlap between areas that will fuel the furnace of progress faster than ever before.

James Woodall is co-founder and CTO at Intoware, a human process improvement platform that solves workflow problems for business, no matter the industry. It has created software that allows large organisations with maintenance and logistics needs – to digitise processes and workflows onto mobiles, tablets and wearables. It’s the Minority Report for
Ind 4.0.