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When Mikael Lind first encountered the shipping sector, an acquaintance told him the industry was the „world’s largest poker game” due to its lack of transparency.

Times are nonetheless changing, and more shipping companies may be willing to show their hand in the not-too-distant future – provided that they can be convinced of the benefits of digitalization and data sharing that form the cornerstone of Maritime Informatics.

What is Maritime Informatics though? And how could it help improve both the shipping industry and the world we live in?

To find out, we spoke to Mikael himself, co-editor of the new book ‚Maritime Informatics’, which was published by Springer last month.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Mikael. Firstly, for those not familiar with the concept, what is Maritime Informatics.

Maritime Informatics is, in some respects, a discourse. It unites practitioners and researchers in their efforts to improve the efficiency, safety, resilience, and sustainability of shipping.

It focuses on the opportunities that digitalization provides for the shipping industry. The means by which we conceive it is a socio-technical approach, which means that it is of high importance that we look upon the business value that can come from digitalization.

This means that Maritime Informatics is not a computer science discipline. It is not a business administration discipline; it is a discipline that utilizes both social science and technical science in tandem to ensure that people and business developers can actually talk together.

That’s the first thing. The other thing is that it stresses data sharing and collaboration. And as the maritime sector is a very self-organizing ecosystem that lacks an overarching operational control body, we need to have other means for managing the necessary collaboration required to balance capital productivity and energy efficiency.

In what ways do you think Maritime Informatics can result in higher levels of operational performance within the shipping industry?

Well, the seafarers have been operating out there in our oceans for centuries. They have cared primarily about getting their ships safely from A to B, but what we see increasingly more now is that they can no longer do that in isolation.

There is no way that you can talk about efficient sea voyages without thinking precisely about when you plan and when you actually depart from a port and similarly for arrival at the next destination.

That requires the port of destination to be really coordinated and have planned for the purpose of the call for the arriving ship. In the past, due to the lack of a means to coordinate capabilities between ship movements at sea with things that were happening inside the port resulted in the majority of the world’s ports running on a first-come-first-served planning basis.

This resulted in low predictability for sea-based transport. Poor predictability means that the next leg into the hinterland needs to include timing and physical buffers, and that costs money. At the end of the day, the consumer or the owner of the goods pays for this lack of predictability.

So, in terms of value, I think that we need to look in the value chain to see that the ones who are the transport coordinators, and the cargo owners, obtain much more transparency, predictability, synchronization and coordination from seaborne transport.

In that respect, we see that the port as a key player in the holistic transport global transport chain cannot only be perceived as a gateway to the sea, they need to be seen as a transshipment hub.

Over time, shipment hubs have been establishing capabilities to do transshipments between different modes of transport. This must happen with ports, too, as most goods moved by sea use other forms of transport at the beginning or end of their journey – or both.

So, ports need to cater for multiple modes of transport and thus seaborne transport is very dependent on the organizational capabilities of the port and how many resources are dedicated to providing synchronized services between each type of transshipment, be it ship-to-ship, ship-to-rail, ship-to-truck, rail-to-truck, truck-to-truck, rail-to-rail, and so on.

Talking of ship-to-rail, do you see intermodal/multimodal as an area that we shall see grow in the coming years?

Absolutely. You see that there is a lot of attention towards multimodal track-and-trace at the moment, and I would like to mention two things here.

First of all, you will see it being pushed a lot as something that goes into sourcing and developing basic requirements, specifications, etc. And you will see phenomena such as smart containers becoming implemented at scale, as the beauty of the container is that it is transported across modes of transport. Thereby the IoT equipped container can report its status along the multi-modal transport chain.

Secondly, the big argument is that the cargo owner requires more visibility for their cargo across modes of transports, more transparency, more predictability, and also, of course, knowing what the storage conditions are for the goods that are being transported. Multi-modal integration is of big concern for the cargo owner.

I mean, just imagine a situation where you would transport food and those food items need to be in a reefer container, or in a reefer. In this situation there are great opportunities to actually see the status of the container and that the goods are kept under the required conditions.

We’ve seen a lot of container issues crop up at ports in Q4 2020. Is there any way that the adoption of Maritime Informatics concepts could alleviate that in the future?

I’m very happy that you’re using the term concepts, because Maritime Informatics is absolutely not a product. It is a knowledge field that unites practitioners and researchers in a common discourse, and it is a concept. Basically, Maritime Informatics is about the digitalization for shipping addressing the concerns of the maritime sector.

I have seen the most recent situation occur in Sweden in the past, where, if you look at some of the dry ports, perhaps there would be empty containers sitting idle once their contents have been distributed by the cargo owner. Those containers naturally need to be brought back into use. Sometimes I hear that these containers are transported back to the terminal and then checked and transported empty back to the original destination because they to be used by the same cargo owner for outbound logistics. That really is bad logistics, and I think this is an example of how the empty container markets could of course be facilitated by Maritime Informatics concepts including data sharing, collaborative decision-making, and synchronization.

Maritime Informatics will likely employ a number of different and novel approaches such as Spotify, for example, or crowdsourcing mechanisms, or open innovation. Those kinds of things are naturally popping up on the agenda for Maritime Informatics as part of “thinking outside the box”.

There are a couple of hackathons going on; there’s been one in Valencia recently, there’s one in Morocco coming up now. At these events the crowd is invited to support the innovation of port environments by means of digitalization, and I think here we should mention two things when it comes to Maritime Informatics.

The first is that Maritime Informatics takes a very holistic approach. And I think the article that you put out on trustworthy info that was published by the UNCTAD and World Economic Forum touched on this. What it basically said was that if we manage to aggregate some data in some of the key places along the transport chain, then we would be able to save between 6,000 to 12,000 lives everyday caused by food shipments not arriving in time.

The problem is that we are so sub-optimized. So, nobody really has this holistic view. And that’s the reason why we need different actors, as well as the activities or events in the self-organizing ecosystem, to work more closely together.

That’s one part. The other part is something I believe to be somewhat unique. The whole industry is built upon episodic tight coupling. By that I mean when, for example, I’m approaching your port, I would like to have access to various specific services. Then tomorrow, I will leave the port and I will not talk to you anymore until I’m back next time, if I’m coming back. That’s a very big difference in the relationship compared to the one a car manufacturer needs to establish with its subcontractors.

Normally and historically, the car manufacturers have built very strong links computer-wise between their suppliers, using such things as linking suppliers’ IT systems with the car manufacturers’ own IT systems. It is even possible for a supplier to go into the core manufacturing IT systems to see the stock level in order to know how the manufacturer is planning its production as a foundation for the supplier to plan its production and supply. That does not really exist in the maritime sector because it’s so episodic.

So, what you’ve just said seems to exemplify how Maritime Informatics and data sharing is not just about business; it can actually improve and even save lives.

Yes, and the planet as well. That said, there are many obstacles to be overcome.

Now we have this whole situation with COVID. Just imagine the challenge of transporting the vaccines. We should say this is a really tough issue, of course. And I know that there’s a lot of things going on in the air cargo industry to support that. But there might be equipment and other items required for tackling the pandemic that needs to be brought to people at different geographical places. They will be mass-transported in containers, which in itself is a very challenging task to assure a timely arrival.

I’m fairly new to the maritime sector, I’ve only been working in this area since 2013. I had come from the aviation transport sector, where I was doing projects on developing world class airports. At the time, I thought that this would be “easy-peasy”. Absolutely, I can tell you that it is not!

We can still have situations where some ships’ captains feel like the King of the sea where nobody else should rule over them. At its worst, you end up with something like the Costa Concordia grounding.

That actually resulted in that more attention was put upon the capabilities of fleet operating centers that guide and monitor ship movements, especially among the larger shipping companies. If the master doesn’t follow the agreed route, they need to file a report. So, their contracts are being put together in ways that they were not previously.

The other thing is that if you come to a port, the port is normally operating or handling many types of trade. And that creates a situation whereby all these trades are utilizing the same resources. This makes the maritime industry the largest sharing economy in the world.

The maritime sector includes a lot of different actors utilizing the same natural resource – the sea. Moreover, there might be a port that genuinely doesn’t care whether an oil tanker or a container ship comes in, the tugboats and their captains are still being used, and everybody wants to have the priority.

On top of that, one last aspect that’s of importance is personal relationships. Turning up with a bottle of whisky often gains the desired priority requirement? How can you disrupt this kind of a scenario? I simply don’t know, there’s a lot that might have to be done here to get things moving.

One of the challenges in pushing forward data sharing is that a few actors in the logistics industry have created their own marketplaces or services with vast data pools. Having built up their businesses, it seems only natural that they would be protective of the data that has helped form part of their business model. So how can these logistics companies be convinced to collaborate?

I think this is one part of it. We need a collaborative effort, that’s for sure one.

I think that if you do not have a very strong relationship with business, nothing will happen. I did a lot of work in the area of collaborative decision making during my time in the aviation sector. We had the airport CDM and we brought PortCDM into the maritime sector.

The basic premise is that you need to have everybody contributing to something called common situational awareness being updated in real-time – in other words sharing a common understanding of what is going on around us. Different people are sitting on pieces of the situational awareness image which need to be put together for their collective benefit.

Recently, we have also introduced a concept known as collaborative alignment. This relates to the way in which the maritime industry often looks like there is rarely a plan that is going to hold. We have a lot of examples of cases where someone has a schedule but is never able to adhere to it due to cumulative disruptions caused by multiple port visits in rotation schemas.

For example, a container ship might do calls to five to seven ports in Asia and then going on the long ocean leg to Europe, then doing calls to five to seven ports again. This means that if you have a disruption in one port, the whole plan is going to break. Also, some of those ports may operate on a first-come-first-served basis. Given that situation, there is a need, in order for everyone to maximize their capital productivity, to be informed of what is happening outside their own operations. And it is extremely important for those business cases to surface.

Therefore, if I was informed that the ship is delayed by a certain period of time, then that means that I can actually put my resources towards another client while waiting for that ship – provided I am informed about it.

Unfortunately, this brings us on to the subject of deception. When I entered the maritime sector, I was told that it was the largest poker game in the world. Nobody shows their hand or tells anyone anything. So, a big portion of the business model of sea transports operates on non-transparency.

We once wrote an article where we compared the ETA reported by the ship agent, with the ATA in a port. There were 200 ship agents, and about 20% of them had a reasonably good match or predictability between the reported ETA and when the ship actually arrived.

The question is, why is this the case? What about the other 80%? The thing is that the ship agent is concerned about supporting its clients and if they say that the ship is going to be delayed, then they might lose the capability to actually have the ship berth at a specific time in the port. Therefore, they will stay on call and report upon the delay as late as possible in the process, so that the port actors cannot redeploy their resources to another ship.

So, here you see that there’s a lot of non-transparency incentives. However, digitalization offers us a lot – especially now at a time when there’s so many data sources being surfaced. The European Commission forecasts that the 80% of zetta bytes channeled in data streams are coming out of data centers. Some 20% of that comes from digitally connected devices such as IoT equipped containers; they expect this relationship to be reversed in 2025 and data coming from data centers will not decrease. Consequently, we will be more digitally informed.

That means that there is no longer any point in resisting data sharing. Even if the bridge of the ship and the shipping company don’t want to expose their route, there might be one smart container on board that ship that can actually tell where the ship is and where it’s heading. This kind of technology means there will be so many data sources on the go. As a consequence, there is little sense in trying to resist data sharing.

So if the shipping industry adopts a sort of ultra-competitive, dog-eat-dog mantra, or a “this is my data, not yours mentality”, we won’t progress?

The thing is that capital productivity is extremely company oriented. And here there is a relationship between fuel or energy consumption and productivity. The faster you sail your ship, the more fuel you consume, and the less capital productivity you have – especially if you are arriving at the port and need to wait outside the port for three, four or five hours or maybe even days.

If you could confidently go slower, the fuel saving is exponential. 40 tons of fuel per 24 hours when you speed 10 knots, or 240 tons of fuel when you steam at 23 knots. So just pushing the ship through the water consumes much more energy when you need to go faster. And when you’re talking about unnecessary energy consumption, it becomes a core concern for society.

Therefore, I think there is a very good relationship here between capital productivity and energy efficiency in the sense of being extremely efficient. Now you see ships being equipped with sails and other solutions to reduce their use of polluting energy sources.

That rather conveniently brings us onto the topic of sustainability, which is an area I know you’ve been involved in. We’re entering a period where there’s lots of talk about alternative fuels or alternative energy, and even hydrogen ships. But that is going to take some time to fully implement, it’s a lot more complicated building a hydrogen container ship compared to a truck. So, in the period between now and the next generation of ships that use alternative fuels, what can be done to try to limit the carbon footprint of the shipping industry?

Ports would not exist if it were not necessary to make shipments, and shipping companies wouldn’t exist if there were no need for sea transport. What needs to be coordinated or synchronized is what is happening prior to and after the port visit.

Big hopes is today put upon how digitalization can support the self-organising ecosystem of maritime transports to become glued together. To achieve this, parties need to take other’s progress, disruptions, and plans into consideration. To exemplify, if the port is full of container ships, a ship is not provided a berth and cannot enter. And if the ship comes in and the trucks or trains delivering goods have not yet arrived, then they cannot leave either. So, this is why it is extremely important that we manage to get the maritime transport set within larger transport chain contexts.

Therefore, synchronization is important. Doing so means that we can reduce ship transit speeds and thereby be more energy efficient.

The other thing that comes to my mind, and digitalization is very important here too, is the bottlenecks caused by customs checks at borders. Customs could be informed in advance what goods are on the ships coming into the port, so that we can accelerate the process and fast track different containers coming through.

Looking further forward, I also believe that alternative fuel is a really good thing. There’s no question about it, but it requires a lot of infrastructure. Even if you’re running on hydrogen or electricity, there is a need to secure supply of energy sources across the globe. Otherwise, it is no use to rebuild or manufacture new ships that use alternative energy sources.

We do have a problem with electricity, for example, we need to ensure that the electricity system is actually capable of powering those ships that are visiting ports either specifically to recharge or just to provide land-based power supply when they’re at berth – and for that we need to adopt common connection standards and protocols.

One big problem is at city ports, where cruise ships are coming in. Those ports ports are located close to city centers and if the ships there are just idle, burning fossil fuels, and emitting carbon dioxide while waiting at port, perhaps for eight hours or 16 hours or whatever, can we not find a way to actually power the ship in a way that is clean? This would contribute to a better environment for citizens of the city.

I also think that the digitalization that we touched on in the beginning of the interview can help. That marketplace approach whereby the capacity or supply of alternative entities can be matched with the demand; that would be also very good. And I think here we can look at how the electric vehicle market has developed. For example, you can now charge your car in every McDonald’s restaurant in Sweden while you’re having a burger.

To be fair Mikael, it looks like Sweden might be a little further down the road when it comes to electric charging points like that! Perhaps we’ll see some progress on that front soon though on a global scale.

Talking of progress, a few weeks ago the DCSA published the first edition of its e-documentation initiative, which establishes standards for the preparation and issuance of the electronic bill of lading documentation. Is this an important step towards simplifying things and having a uniform standard for electronic documents?

I think on one hand, the maritime sector has a very strong legacy in paper-based documentation.

When a ship’s captain conducts a port rotation in Europe, they need to fill out hundreds of pages of documentation. What digitalization offers is like moving close to the speed of light in the sense that, if you take a bill of lading, where people need to agree upon what is inside the container, historically, that bill of lading was moved as a physical paper together with a container.

What is happening now is basically that you can submit that digitally and ensure that the recipients get the specific documentation that they require well in advance.

When it comes to the DCSA, it is a membership driven organization and I would compare it to the IATA. I think that it is fair to say that the responses that we are seeing now from the DCSA that things are going too slowly on the part of the regulatory standardization bodies. And they want to do something that works for the members, so that they can harvest the opportunities fast enough to respond to their clients.

I also think that that there is a fine balance to be struck here because some of the regulatory bodies such as UN/CEFACT and UNECE have established multimodal transport framework, which is also aligned with the efforts of IMO FAL, who is now putting efforts into a reference data model that references a number of different standardization bodies. This is being done in order to address the needs of industry, with industry contributing and playing its part so as to avoid reinventing the wheel.

The challenge here is that currently there’s a tremendous amount of effort and money put into people sitting around desks and relying on paper-based solutions. The big challenge comes when trying to empower people and encourage them to implement changes needed to actually make a difference. Personally, I think that there is time to do a number of pilot implementations. And we need to create business incentives for IT investments.

The problem is there’s a lot of actors in the supply chain industry. The biggest players only have a small market share which means that there are a lot of organizations that need to be consulted and take part of this change on a global scale.

If we look at the emergence of Bluetooth, a set of telecom providers sat around the table and said, let’s agree upon a standard that we can push out to the industry so we can build our solutions around it. But they were very few actors.

However, when you’re talking to the supply chain industry, there are so many actors. So, is there a possibility to get any agreement at all? This requires that member-driven associations and large players across the supply chain come to an agreement on a common practice of how to connect and how to communicate.

How do you think the training and education regarding Maritime Informatics should be conducted? Do you think it’s best to try to educate the future generations who are just entering the logistics industry, so they are fully schooled on the matter when they start? Or do you think that we need to focus on the older, more experienced heads in order to bring real change?

I think it’s a combination of both.

The book Maritime Informatics provides a good framework for both professional training schools and academics.

One of the reasons we chose Springer to publish the book is because it has enormous credibility among academics. So, this could be launched as an important movement that has been made for the maritime sector and tomorrow’s skills in digitalization.

The more that we write about Maritime Informatics, the more scholars that come to me and say Mikael, “this is the best we can find at the moment”. So, to bring the latest news to the students is good – fantastic even.

At the same time, the book is full of real-world examples of the use and potential of Maritime Informatics – so it has a place for existing practitioners, too; both those just entering the industry and well as those more senior.

The good news about the Maritime Informatics book is that no one has ever tried to bring forward a comprehensive framework to create a uniting force on what digitalization can mean for the maritime sector. There’s a lot of fragmented statements – a little bit everywhere, some say. And luckily, I’m talking to people like yourself that actually have a very good bandwidth to actually bring this type of news out.

We’re having great dialogues now with a couple of universities on introducing Maritime Informatics into the curriculum for master’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees in preparation for providing tomorrow’s mariners with the right skills for digitalization.

Finally, Mikael, going back to the book. I think anybody that is involved in the production of just about any book, whether it is a novel, a factual piece, an academic piece or scientific piece, it is always a lot of work, and it’s a significant investment in one’s time – not just for yourself, but also on the part of the co-authors who produced the Maritime Informatics book. So, you must feel a sense of fulfillment now that it’s been published and that you’re getting some positive feedback.

I’ve always tried to be a very collaborative person. And I think this book is totally unique. Out of some 100 thousands of books that Springer has released, I don’t think that they have many that involve so many co-authors from practice and academia that unite forces.

Academics can study what is happening in the maritime sector and can write about it, but not necessarily have the practical experience. But when you have an ambition, as we did, to ensure that every chapter in a book is co-authored with at least one skilled researcher and one skilled practitioner on board, that means that the theory is meeting the practice head-on. Suddenly academics who love theorizing become reality-checked with the insights of the practitioners. At the same time, the practitioners become familiar with theoretical constructs relevant to their reality. Of course, the practitioners didn’t want to be part of the book if it wasn’t relevant to them and their world.

Now, I see the website we created, martimeinformatics.org, has a lot of visitors. And I’m trying to keep that up to date by publishing quotes every morning about the value of Maritime Informatics. The feedback and supportive comments in the professional social media has been significant, too.

So, I think the book is a success and actually a demonstration of the many of the same collaborative, digitalized, data sharing attributes that underpin maritime informatics. What is more, the book was created by digital input from contributors around the globe without a single face-to-face authoring or editorial meeting – more similarities with a maritime informatics world.

If you would like to learn more about Maritime Informatics, you can visit martimeinformatics.org or order your copy of the Maritime Informatics Book

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