Human crewing power in an automated world

Digitalisation can supercharge crewing strategies. Nick Clarke, CEO of Greywing and Peter Schellenberger, managing director at Vanir Marine, explain how.

Digitalisation has swept industries across the world into a more streamlined way of working – yet, the sheer scale of the global maritime industry can make it hard to catch up.

As more industry stakeholders embrace digitalisation, the only constant in maritime is the human touch, which is even more crucial during the pandemic. People are key assets for any shipping company – but more needs to be done to streamline crew changes, and take care of the people powering shipping.

Barriers to digital adoption

In the decentralised maritime industry, there are various moving parts: an average of three to five companies are involved in facilitating a single crew change. The whole process is still very analogue, personal documents are typically handled and verified manually. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated issues that may arise from these moving parts and highlighted how easy it is for the entire system to fall apart. It is now all too clear how siloed information has become, making big picture analysis and collaboration within an organisation incredibly difficult.

Not to mention, COVID-19 has been driving record eCommerce sales, which has led to an 8-9x increase in the amount of ocean freight moving between Asia and the US, even as the spread of COVID-19 impacts labour availability, exacerbating global delivery delays. There is a clear opportunity that shipping companies may be missing as major eCommerce players seek to cut out the middleman and charter their own vessels.

With all the potential big wins, a question persists: why aren’t more maritime organisations embracing digitalisation? Some key players are resistant to the challenges of learning and adapting to a new piece of software. Too often, there’s a lag when introducing new technologies or new workflows; the cost of implementation, time spent onboarding or upskilling human resources. However, the benefits outweigh the learning curve costs, especially for the first-movers who are willing to take the risk and outpace their competition. For example, it takes an average of 8 hours to onboard a new crew manager. For every hour invested in onboarding, 37 hours is saved each year – that’s 296 hours saved annually by successfully onboarding one human team member.

Similarly, it’s crucial for digital tools to be optimised so they are easy to understand and implement. While it may take some initial investment, the time saved across the course of the year is too great to waste. Rather than trying to crowbar technologies into existing workflows, new workflows need to be developed that allow space for learning and are optimised to scale – it’s a small sacrifice of time for a huge exponential growth opportunity. For some new smart solutions, the description and documentation of value proposition and efficiency gains should be clearly explained to remove the hurdles of initial investment and implementation resource allocation.

Adopting digitalisation in the maritime industry

Digitalisation isn’t an entirely new concept in shipping. In the 1980s, the maritime industry was one of the first to adopt Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) standards. Specific areas have been undergoing digitalisation for 20 – 30 years. But there’s a link missing in connecting these systems together and deploying them on board. Most maritime organisations have already invested in well-proven technologies – but often, the lack of streamlined processes means people are having to manually connect information, rather than use it to deliver their work better. There’s still a wealth of untapped potential to be explored.

It’s not about experimenting with new digital tools. Maritime organisations need to leverage well-proven technologies they have already invested in to help mitigate the impact of volatility and streamline their operations. Data is currently held and spread across multiple departments, systems, countries and languages, that if connected could automate away menial and laborious tasks like data entry and correction. With better data, analytical tools like prediction can be deployed to inform smarter decisions, and teams have more time to communicate insights across the organisation. By reducing administrative workloads, organisations can better work within the complex landscape of maritime safety and commercial regulations. This requires a detailed “mirroring” of situations in order to define the bottlenecks well, thus making it easier to solve the problem.

Another challenge facing the industry is tension around technologies developed by competitors. This puts a handbrake on software evolution, preventing cross-organisational collaboration and impairing innovation scaling to optimise value chains on a global scale. Taking a similarly big picture approach, people within organisations who are able to master nascent technologies hold the same advantage as a company or industry that adopted it first, as they begin taking information and turning it into knowledge to achieve more, efficiently. By relying on human willingness to take advantage of new digital tools, organisations risk becoming overly reliant on individuals – who are able to leave and apply their expertise to competitors.

Augment, not replace

Even with digital tools, the human touch is still indispensable. People are the most valuable asset for any shipping company, but they’re often first in the firing line when it comes to cutting costs. Technology has the power to transform crew management to improve safety outcomes, crew wellbeing and long-term financial performance – but it needs people to implement it wisely and holistically. Many have found that technology can improve collaboration between teams onshore and at sea, creating a connected workplace culture and generating major cost and efficiency savings.

Crew management requires human power and will continue to. Digitalisation can’t replace a human conversation with seafarers around unexpected crises; but it can automate tasks so crew managers have more time to respond to the crew, their families, and to pre-empt incidents that only a human would be able to perceive. Adopting a crewing strategy led by digitalisation is essential, helping crew managers to be more efficient and help survive systemic shocks like COVID-19. Digital tools can help crew managers consider millions of data points to understand a situation with the wisdom normally acquired after decades of experience, helping to accelerate decision-making and utilising technology to better support the human experience.


The maritime industry is a constantly changing complex chess game. The challenges on this path are still plentiful: we are in an extremely conservative industry known to resist information and data sharing, can be slow to encourage first-movers and struggle to attract young talent.

Everything has to be aligned in the right moment to be efficient – and using technology effectively can make a massive difference. The new generation of maritime leaders are embracing the potential of digitalisation, automation and big data to ensure resilient operations that survive fast-moving developments and provide sustainable returns for the future. To ensure efficient yet sustainable operations, industry leaders must reevaluate their existing strategies and adapt. Maritime organisations need to leverage well-proven technologies they have already invested in to streamline their operations, augment human power and mitigate the impact of ongoing volatility.

However, human power remains indispensable. People are the most valuable asset for any shipping company, but crew change crises plague the industry. Too much time is lost on automatable and mundane tasks, preventing opportunities to enrich and support human crew to work at their best, train and build technology tools to support crew, and develop relationships within the maritime industry to leverage the opportunities from collaboration.

The vessel and its able crew can often benefit greatly from the endeavours to adopt new digital solutions. By embracing digitalisation to augment workflows, crew managers and seafarers can focus on the issues that can only be solved with the human touch.


  1. As we were insects at the service of the market, technology aims to collect workers!

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