Evolution, not revolution on shipping’s digital path

At the Maritime Future Summit held at SMM in Hamburg this week delegates were told not to believe all the hype regarding an imminent digital revolution for shipping – the process will take a long time.

In his keynote, Hubert Hoffmann, CIO and CDO of MSC Germany, set the stage for the conference. “It is not the technology as such that presents the challenge but changing our way of thinking,” Hoffmann said, pointing out that the business and bureaucratic processes in ocean shipping have remained virtually unchanged over the past 80 years. The same applies to port registration procedures which still have not been harmonised globally. His conclusion was a call for outdated analogue procedures to be digitalised and standardised.

Mark O’Neil, CEO of shipmanager Columbia Marlow, told delegates: “Digitalisation will primarily enable optimised work processes.” This will most likely occur in an evolutionary process rather than an abrupt revolution as frequently suggested, O’Neil suggested. To handle the enormous cost of digitalisation, O’Neill recommended that the industry adopt a strategic approach.

“Shipmanagers should primarily focus on the customer’s technical needs,” O’Neil said. Nevertheless, when it comes to making crucial decisions it would be unwise to procrastinate, he said. “It would be better to take the right step at the wrong time than vice versa,” O’Neil claimed.

Also speaking at the event was Dr Pierre Sames, director of maritime technology at classification society DNV GL, who discussed the use of digital twins in shipping.

“The digital twin can be used to determine the most fuel-efficient ship design or forecast the lifespan of individual components,” Sames said. The better the algorithm and the more powerful the virtualisation system, the more accurate the predictions will be, he added. “In future, smart, self-learning machines will be used in autonomous ships,” Sames predicted.

The summit also took in the views of tech leaders from East Asia. Matsuo, project director R&D at the Japanese National Maritime Research Institute, gave delegates his technology roadmap to 2050. Matsuo suggested that big data will enable the use of ultra light, extremely robust materials, which might give rise to entirely new ship types. He also expects flexibility to increase: “In the age of 3D printing, production will no longer be confined to one particular location. Everybody will be able to build ships at any place,” Matsuo said.

Splash is reporting from SMM, the world’s largest shipping event, in Hamburg all week.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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