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Entrenched attitudes versus technology adoption

Chief correspondent Jason Jiang asks whether the mindset of those working within maritime is holding the industry back from becoming tech pioneers.

Technology has always been the driving force promoting the development of various sectors in human life and businesses. The pace in overall technology development in the world has been unprecedentedly fast in the past few years and many predict that the golden era of technology is coming with several key technologies like big data, artificial intelligence and virtual reality taking hold to benefit various business sectors. However, there is always much concern that the shipping industry will be slower to adopt new technologies due to some of its traditional characteristics.

Are entrenched attitudes stymieing new technology adoption in shipping? That’s the view held by Bhupesh Gandhi, managing director of brand new Group Nautical, a Singapore maritime tech consultancy.

“Entrenched attitudes and traditional ways of working, these habits are difficult to change and do not match the pace of change of the technology adoption itself,” Gandhi told this site in an interview carried earlier this month.

People need to also learn new skills- “learning how to learn,” Gandhi said – which he maintained is not traditionally given the highest priority within shipping.

“Top it up,” he continued, “with the commonly heard excuse of reluctance to adapt as the industry is not doing well. It won’t until we learn to accept and adapt to the reality that is now and be ready for the future.”

Splash has talked with a number of top minds in different sectors in shipping and the answers appear to be cautiously optimistic for the future of our industry and the workforce’s ability to adapt to technology change.

Frank Coles, the high profile CEO of equipment manufacturer Transas, reckons the short answer to the question is yes, however the problem is deeper than that.

“Technology is an enabler, simply painting it over the top of the creeking, old fashioned business model and processes is a waste of time and resources. We need a new attitude to business model efficiency, training, safety and recognition of smarter decisions coming from better use of data and decision support.  This impacts every element of the current maritime discussions,” Coles maintains.

“So the entrenched ostrich who lives in a CAVE (citizens against virtually everything) is making maritime a dinosaur industry,” he adds.

Bjorn Hojgaard, CEO of shipmanager Anglo-Eastern Univan Group, has the perception that despite some people undoubtedly having old school attitudes, the shipping industry is full of adventurous self-starters and risk takers, who don’t back down when facing a technological challenge.

Hojgaard firmly believes that two areas in particular – propulsion system and big data – will see huge leaps forward in the next 10 years.

“The kinds of fuel we use, the mix of means for energy storage, conversion to propulsion and auxiliary needs etc; all are up for disruption and it is not clear which technologies will emerge winners and the timeline for the race ahead,” says Hojgaard.

Hojgaard reckons it is likely that the industry will face a multi-pronged world a few years from now, where trading areas and types of ship will dictate different approaches to all these questions but he has no doubt that the decarbonisation agenda will only accelerate in the years to come, and it will change shipping profoundly.

“I do think that most of this development is driven by innovative and progressive thinking inside the industry, often in response to regulatory requirements, but also simply because behind the headline rule-set is a backdrop of rapidly changing expectations from a demanding public,” Hojgaard says, adding that the use of smart sensors and gauges, artificial intelligence and connectivity will also lead to rapid changes in the way ships are operated.

“I don’t believe we will see mainstream deepsea ships become autonomous – in the meaning of no people onboard – for at least a generation, but I can easily envisage a world where the roles and jobs of the people onboard change in response to technological advances. In fact, I think the ship of the future will require more sophisticated skillsets from the seafarers than is the case today, and I embrace that wholeheartedly,” Hojgaard says.

Gunnar Larsen, senior vice president, market and business development of Norwegian ship technology company Havyard Group, reckons the complete maritime cluster in Norway helps clear the mindset hurdles for maritime innovation.

“It is not our opinion that, in our business segments, shipowners have created hurdles for the innovation of new technology,” he says. “On the contrary, shipowners are often driving innovation for new technology making the vessels more efficient, safer and more environmentally friendly. I think one reason is the complete maritime cluster in Norway with shipowners, brokers, shipbuilders, designers, equipment suppliers and educational institutions working close together, having knowledge about the whole value chain.”

Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, CEO of the maritime division of classification society DNV GL, does not believe the entrenched attitudes will stand in the way of maritime innovation as he has seen a rapid cultural change going on in many shipping companies and this has to do with younger generations coming into shipping as well as professionals from other industries.

“It is clear that digitalisation will continue to gradually transform shipping and change the way classification societies work,” Ørbeck-Nilssen says.

It’s not entrenched attitudes that delay new technology adoption, argues another top shipmanager interviewed by Splash – it’s more down to the complex nature of multiple stakeholders in the industry.

“I don’t believe that it is entrenched attitudes that delays adoption of new technology, it is that fact that there are so many stakeholders with interests in the industry that it makes getting agreement a very lengthy and tedious process,” says David Price, managing director of Wallem Shipmanagement.

“A good example of this is the ballast water treatment convention which took many years to reach agreement and even now there are some port states that have gone their own route. If the industry were less fragmented I have no doubt that decision making could be speeded up and the adoption of new technology would be faster,” Price reckons.

Thomas Wilhelmsen, group CEO of Wilh. Wilhelmsen Holding, disagrees with the saying that maritime industry is conservative, although he hears it often.

“If you are conservative in the maritime industry, you will not make it, full stop,” Wilhelmsen maintained in a recent speech given at a conference in Oslo.

“With the amount of data available now, combined with technology providing new opportunities, our options and possibilities to create value for our customers are different today than just one year ago,” Wilhelmsen said, concluding: “It is more fun to be in in the forefront of developing the maritime industry, than to be just someone who comes in later and adopts what everyone else are doing.”

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Jason Jiang

Jason is one of the most prolific writers on the diverse China shipping & logistics industry and his access to the major maritime players with business in China has proved an invaluable source of exclusives. Having been working at Asia Shipping Media since inception, Jason is the chief correspondent of Splash and associate editor of Maritime CEO magazine. Previously he had written for a host of titles including Supply Chain Asia, Cargo Facts and Air Cargo Week.
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