Maritime digital transformation: reframing the narrative

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Much has been written about the challenges of digital transformation in the maritime industry. Generalised value statements like “sluggish”, “resistance” and even “unsuccessful” have been tacked onto the topic like barnacles on the bottom of a vessel. 

But nobody would now deny that the future of the maritime industry depends on digitalisation. In fact, in our recent global survey of maritime attitudes to digital transformation, 78% of respondents agree that change and technological innovation is a good thing. 

Organisations already know that if they hope to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace, they must have a digital strategy. Many, if not all, have at the very least some semblance of one. Yet what we’ve found is that perceptions of digital transformation in the industry varied wildly. 

Confusion about what digitalisation should look like. Apprehension about what the impact of digitalisation might be. Scepticism about gains made so far. These preconceived ideas are driving division within the sector which is, in my view, the real barrier to progress. 

Like the tall tales of nautical folklore – myths where monsters threatened the safe passage of sailors on their voyages to new worlds – marine digital transformation is stuck in a particular narrative. A narrative that says digitalisation is too complex, too costly, and too clever for our traditional industry.  

It’s time we told a different story.

70% of maritime professionals understand the benefits of digitalisation. But it remains a daunting prospect

We live in a digital era where technology touches almost every aspect of our lives. While other industries rushed ahead in a mad dash of digital transformation in the late 90s and early 2000s, maritime held back. There were good reasons for it – data availability and ship connectivity were an enormous challenge, amongst other things – but the reality is that the shipping industry fell behind and is still in the process of catching up. 

Our survey revealed that of the maritime professionals surveyed (which included a broad cross-section of roles from seafarer to port operator), 70% have a very clear understanding of why digitalisation is needed and its benefits. 

So, if we are comfortable with technology and recognise its benefits, why are we not seeing the same leaps that we do in other transport sectors like the airline industry, for example?

While the comparison with aviation is a reductive one, it does shed light on the lack of common data standards across the shipping sector, which compounds the challenge of working within such an enormous and highly complicated logistics chain. 

The prospect of digitalising every single link in that chain is a formidable one, as proven in our research:

● 56% believe that the time and cost implications involved with digital transformation projects are too high

● 69% believe that the ability to digitise existing infrastructure and retrofit vessels is challenging

There’s little room for manoeuvre in the current scenario where ships are owned, managed, and operated by several different companies, and when technology onboard is supplied by various vendors who update their products at different rates. It’s also tough to outfit a vessel when it’s in operation on the other side of the world where there may be certain trading patterns or limited bandwidth.

Variations in domestic and international regulatory requirements also pose a challenge. It is not easy to predict whether a new piece or system of technology – and the training and process change it requires – will be compliant with ever-evolving rules.

It’s clear that a consensus on the necessity and advantages of technology exists, but there is still concern about what the route to digitalisation may hold. 

Looking to companies who have successfully begun the journey

But times are changing with many maritime organisations having successfully invested in digitalisation and publicly reaped the rewards.

Take one of our customers as an example. Carisbrooke Shipping – a UK-based dry bulk and general cargo ship operator – implemented Wärtsilä’s Fleet Optimisation Solution (FOS) across 31 vessels in 2019 in order to gather insights that would support in its objectives around reducing carbon emissions and ensuring fleet performance – both of which are key to the company’s current strategy. 

Since the roll-out of FOS, Carisbrooke Shipping has said they are better positioned to balance and prioritise measures with vessel safety, voyage optimisation and fuel use. With the company reporting fuel savings of 5-7%, what’s clear is just how critical digital technologies, and especially ones which enable data-driven decision making, is here – ensuring that organisations like Carisbrooke Shipping can make fast, well-informed decisions on how to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.

We need to get comfortable with failure and learn from mistakes

As more organisations prove the benefits of digitalisation in real life, scepticism begins to thaw. But just as there are positive examples of companies embracing change for the better, there are mistakes to be learned from. 

Going all-in on digital investments too fast can create its own challenges that will only fan the flames of pessimism around digital transformation. 

Data is a prime example of why we need to approach digitalisation strategically and share information across companies and authorities. While our survey showed that two-thirds of maritime professionals consider themselves data-savvy, 63% say that the amount of data generated on board ships is overwhelming.

And the amount of data will only increase as more operational elements move from analogue to digital – and eventually to highly automated ones. 

Maritime is similar to many other sectors grappling with realising the value of increasing volumes of data. A rush to implement data architecture and analytics solutions without considering the holistic view of your IT infrastructure on and offshore only results in data silos and security risks. 

Technological interoperability is therefore vital. Organisations should look for tools that can be quickly integrated across providers and that are able to transfer data between them securely. Data must also be shared for analysis, benchmarking, and performance optimisation to enable organisations to unlock its power. 

The nature of today’s technology dictates that iteration is more valuable than innovation. When products and processes are continually tested, learned from, and improved, growth occurs. 

Digital transformation will not arrive as an out-of-the-box solution. And it is not a silver bullet to eliminate every challenge we face. 

Writing a new story of iteration and collaboration, together

Tech companies, ship managers, owners, operators, ports, and seafarers must work together if they want to make digital transformation happen. We need standardisation with clear guidelines for who is responsible for what, alongside collaboration where data and learnings are shared and accessible from a centralised viewpoint.

This work can begin once we abandon the idea of digital transformation as an all-or-nothing operation along a one-size-fits-all route. We should approach digitalisation as a series of quick wins and small gains, catalysed by trial and error and advanced by agile decision-making where we are not afraid to fail. 

Step by step, piece by piece, we can reframe the worn-out narrative that shipping isn’t ready for the future. Fear may have been holding us back. 

But the story told by the next generation will be one of venturing boldly into uncharted waters with optimism – and doing so together.

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Sarah Barrett

Sarah Barrett, Product Insights - Wärtsilä:
Sarah has almost 20 years’ experience in the maritime, mainly focused on sensor and performance monitoring technologies. After working on the ISO19030 for measuring changes in hull and propeller performance, she took on the role of a vessel performance superintendent for a ship owner and manager. In 2021, Sarah joined Wärtsilä to lead the Voyage product insights team.

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