Ship managers have an essential role to play in linking data to commercial gains says Stephen MacFarlane

It is undeniable that access to greater quantities of better data has changed shipping. According to Reed Smith, 40 per cent of shipping executives see big data as a more significant driver of change than blockchain, or environmental technology. However, in 2018, Seatrade reported that only around nine per cent saw big data as a current part of their operations.

So what’s the hold up? Why is shipping embracing the idea of big data, but failing to maximise the value of it?

Many of the reasons behind this are not technological, but operational. While many in the industry talk excitedly about artificial intelligence, many solutions that could make a huge difference involve simple automation, rather than AI. Similarly, while big data is undoubtedly valuable, accurately collecting smaller datasets can be just as useful. The key to success – as we see it at V.Group – is being able to collect quality data and enact the behaviours that drive change. DNV-GL recently claimed that data quality was the number one problem for its data platform Veracity, attesting that ‘the market for data quality dwarfs the market for big data.’ Despite the technology being available, it’s integrating it into the operation of a vessel that proves problematic for the industry as a whole. It’s a bit like getting a personal training and diet plan app. Downloading the app is easy. Using it effectively, on the other hand, can be a lot more difficult.

The value of digitalisation is particularly impactful when it comes to container shipping. A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group notes that: ‘The time has come for the container-shipping industry to join the digital revolution. Digital opens the door for carriers to strengthen their direct relationships with end customers, further reduce their costs (including for fuel, vessel operation, and customer service), and pursue new revenue streams beyond traditional shipping services.’ However, it notes: ‘Only a few leading carriers have applied digital technologies toward enhancing their commercial and operational activities.’

This is why it is vital that ship managers as a whole start embracing their positions at the crossroads of data exchange between crew and shoreside teams, and our ability to effect change based on data that impacts not just technical, but commercial operations for the container sector.

This is demonstrated in the application of V.Group’s data platform, Shipsure, which gives customers exclusive and secure access to data from across their business, vessels and entire fleet. As we are already embedded in the ship-to-shore conversation, we can not only ensure that accurate data is collected, but acted on. We can use the data to set meaningful goals and KPIs, and iterate accordingly. We – crucially – also have the capacity to roll out and on-board new equipment effectively.

So, why isn’t everyone doing this already? Why is the role of the ship manager so important? One of the biggest hurdles for the industry to overcome is access to accurate data. Functionality and features are important, but not the hardest problems to fix from a software or hardware engineering standpoint. The ability to embed big data tools in the operation of the vessel and the operation of the technical management, and being able to ensure that their the data is captured well, is far more important than having a glossy front end – and this is something that ship managers excel at. While we do have live dashboards and metrics so we can see what’s happened, we can also identify what’s going on, and can police behaviours to make sure that quality data is being entered. This is essential; otherwise, the only outputs are pretty charts that will never work because no-one is entering the data accurately in the first place, so it’s fundamentally flawed.

This marks an evolution in the role of the ship manager, which has traditionally been a solely technical one, classified under technical management. Technical managers have traditionally focused on technical operations of vessel – making sure that a vessel is properly maintained, safe, and meets specifications, while a separate group would focus on the commercial management of a vessel. This classic approach has been in place for so long because it’s not easy; ships are moving factories, and keeping them safe and operational is a big job. The job is getting bigger, however. Ship managers are now equally focused on technical and commercial performance.

This stems from vastly increased potential for managers to offer a much higher value service to the owner by using data to optimise a ship’s commercial performance. We can now set goals that are much more performance-based; they are about compliance with voyage and charter party agreements and how well a vessel’s main engines are performing from a fuel optimisation point of view, and give recommendations accordingly. An example recommendation might be ‘Look, we can spend some money on hull cleaning, which is a good investment because we’re gathering data that shows we can improve hull performance – which equals improved pool points’.

Despite this potential, many people see digitalisation and adoption of data as a potential threat – that somehow digitalisation will replace the trusted expertise of seafarers and shore-based staff. We don’t tend to see it that way – in many ways, our role as a manger is to facilitate intelligent conversations about performance. For example, if we use Shipsure to take live feeds, overlaid with our weather and performance models, and compare them to what the ship is telling us, the truth is somewhere in between. Our data platform allows for intelligent conversations to be had between the management team and the on-board team about what is actually happening on board that vessel. We can help them to have intelligent conversations about the weather ahead, for example, and what to do next. ShipSure, is what allows us as a management company, to facilitate intelligent conversations and combine knowledge between crews ashore and afloat – not tell them how to do their jobs.

Integrating ‘intelligent’ functionality to this system would largely involve automation more of the collection and reaction to data – creating a layer of automated activity. A technical superintendent can say ‘you’ve got five bits of critical maintenance overdue’ – AI can also do that. In addition, this opens the door to automating problem diagnosis. Much of what comes out looking like AI is actually automation – but if whoever’s implementing it is not embedded in the day-to-day operations, it won’t work. Again, this is about facilitating intelligent conversations – not taking people out of the equation, but giving them the right information and tools to be more effective.

One of the most promising applications that we are working on adding into ShipSure, is to put this data together and create a health index for vessels. This would be based on inputs from the hundreds of vessels that we manage, allowing us to both track and predict the reliability and health of a vessel, which reduces risk and increases activity time for owners. This is another basis for conversations, which could drastically improve safety and reliability, and, crucially, is based on inputs that we can verify and quality control – and another demonstration of the vast potential for ship managers to fully realise the benefits of digitalisation for the industry.

Stephen MacFarlane is Information Systems Director at V.Group. V.Group is the leading global marine and offshore vessel management and support services provider, with circa 3000 colleagues based across 60 offices globally, supporting over 44,000 personnel in marine and offshore roles.