Securing the Foundations
In recent years, there has been much talk within the maritime industry about the inevitable shift towards Industry 4.0—the ushering in of the fourth industrial revolution to one of the world’s oldest and most crucial industries. For all parties involved in shipping supply chains, the realisation of Maritime 4.0 provides very real possibilities for making the movement of goods across the world’s oceans and waterways a more efficient and less labour-intensive undertaking. In recent years, in working to actualise the goal of 4.0, there has been welcome progress.
The benefits of cloud-based solutions have gained considerable traction for all of the right reasons and a wide range of web-based applications are making day-to-day operations much more efficient, reliable and transparent for many organisations. Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities onboard ships have been applied by some with varying levels of success, and a considerable amount of work has been undertaken by industry authorities to begin regulating and standardising IoT in practice. We have also seen great progress being made in the automation of processes in port, and better use of big-data systems across a wide range of operational areas both at sea and onshore.
Overall, there is now a growing acceptance that the future of maritime is going to be led by increased digitalisation and automation. But there is a long way to go, yet. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has made this reality abundantly clear.
While some port communities have seized the opportunities that new digital technologies and the integration of digitalised processes can deliver by developing into “smart” ports in recent years, many others have not. They rely on personal interaction and paper-based transactions as the norm for shipboard, ship-to-shore interface, and wider supply-chain-based exchanges. The same is true of companies—some shipowners, operators, managers, agents have leveraged digitalised, integrated solutions across their operations; others have not. They rely on paper-based processes, or a disparate set of IT tools and shoe-horned applications to go about their business in a piecemeal way. Those ports and businesses on the ‘have not’ side of this divide were left exposed and disproportionately vulnerable when the world demanded a new way of working.
This is not just armchair commentary from a software house; demonstrating the significance of the issue and its impact on both maritime communities and national economies, The World Bank and the International Association of Ports and Harbours (IAPH) have co-authored a report on the issue: ‘Accelerating Digitalization Across the Maritime Supply Chain’, published in January 2021. The report highlights how Covid-19 underscored the importance of a need to digitalise maritime, to realise Maritime 4.0, in order to make global supply chains and economies more resilient. It also warns that this evolutionary requirement poses an existential threat to a considerable proportion of maritime-linked communities, and maritime organisations.
The report analyses numerous technologies applied already by some from the world’s leading port and maritime communities, including big data, the internet of things (IoT), fifth-generation technology (5G), blockchain solutions, wearable devices, unmanned aircraft systems, and other smart technology-based methods to improve performance and economic competitiveness. It describes how the collaborative use of digital technology can help streamline all aspects of maritime transport, from cross-border processes and documentation to communications between ship and shore, and it lays out a roadmap for making this the new-normal.
But achieving this will remain a pipedream for most. If the fundamentals are not in place first, the divide between the digitalized ‘haves and have-nots’ will only grow more pronounced. Laying firm foundations is a move that rests in the hands of individual companies and service providers. If they want to be able to compete in future, they must upgrade their IT capabilities, to move us all closer to a point of readiness, while enabling them to adapt to the pressures of today. In short, shipping companies must ensure they are using reliable, integrated software solutions in the administration of their business and operations—solutions that are available to them now.
The good news is that pushing the entire shipping supply chain toward a new baseline of IT capability through the more widespread use of digitalized and integrated IT solutions, is very achievable, and affordable. Twenty or so years ago incorporating integrated technology into business was only the prerogative of the very large shipping companies.
Today however, options such as Softship’s ALFA, LIMA and Softship.SAPAS packages cater to the business processes of liner and port agents of any size. These solutions offer complete integration using a modular ‘packaged’ format enabling users to pay for what they use, or select the modules that they require, and integrate them across every business department or function through to create a single, unified system. Such solutions automatically captures data, standardise processes, ensure additional checks and balances, and enable people to work from any location. Because these solutions are developed by a third-party provider, they are also continuously adapted and upgraded to keep in pace with developments in technology, regulations and risks.
With a sturdy IT environment in place that is capable of adapting to the changing world around us, companies of any size can continuously evolve within a digitalising maritime eco-system, nobody needs to be left behind in the journey towards Maritime 4.0.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lars Fischer is the Managing Director of the Asia Pacific headquarters of software solutions provider Softship. Lars began working for Softship as a software engineer since 1994. He became a business consultant and project manager in 1996 and has headed-up Softship Data Processing, Singapore, since 1998. He is responsible for Singapore’s commercial and technical staff of 25 and for the group’s sales and marketing strategy worldwide.