Liner companies need comprehensive IT systems in place to capitalise on digitalisation and blockchain
While there is some uncertainty about the potential application of new digital technologies for transforming shipping supply chains, the trend toward Maritime 4.0 is best understood as a process of evolution, rather than a marked milestone in our development.
Adoption of new technologies across the maritime industry is not only likely; it is inevitable. Shipping does not operate in isolation and serves a world that is digitalising, automating and networking at speed. It is hard to imagine that humanity will now go full-circle and switch back to analogue, and so as an industry, it is vital that shipping starts to think realistically about its future. We should be careful of bemoaning the changes that inevitably come with age, and instead recognise that some things really do get better with time.
It is true that when it comes to digital adoption across the maritime industry, the container shipping segment is already years ahead of the pack. Global organisations from outside of conventional shipping are partnering with large industry players, such as the well-publicised blockchain enterprise between IBM and Maersk. This blockchain (or distributed ledger technology) joint venture aims to address the need to provide more transparency and simplicity in the movement of goods across borders and trading zones. In total, 94 organisations have already agreed to participate in the platform, which is welcome news. However, the reality is that blockchain technology for shipping supply chains is still very much in its infancy and the technology’s broader benefit to users is yet to be seen.
Likewise, with big data there is a lot of emphasis right now on how the industry can harness huge amounts of useful data to better optimise how ships move freight. Leveraging big data properly relies heavily on connectivity, and in an industry where wifi on board ships or indeed on shore in port is sparse, the challenges are obvious. It makes sense to take a more pragmatic approach that first identifies and looks to enhance the technologies that underpin smart shipping which are currently widely underutilised. Again, the reality is that there is still a long way to go before the entire container shipping supply chain is adequately digitalised, automated and intuitively connected to utilise the power of big data to its full potential.
To facilitate the end-to-end utilisation of blockchain systems and to enable shipping companies to utilise big data to optimal effect, we need the foundations firmly in place first. Currently, some liner shipping companies and liner agents do have comprehensive IT systems in place to provide solid grounding. These systems extend into every corner of the business and integrate seamlessly with the myriad applications, information sources and third-party organisation they need to communicate with to manage end-to-end shipments.
Other liners and agents, by comparison, might simply use Microsoft Word to develop documents or Excel to complete financial reports to manage the hundreds of tasks required in moving a cargo from port to port. While both approaches incorporate technology, the degree to which technology is being correctly utilised clearly varies enormously. As such, there is a significant gap in the evolution of the shipping industry at present.
But this disparity in technological uptake really shouldn’t be the case. Twenty or so years ago incorporating integrated technology into business was only the prerogative of the very large shipping companies with deep pockets. Today, however, options such as Softship’s ALFA, LIMA and SAPAS packages which cater to the business processes of liner and port agents, offer full integration in a modular ‘off the shelf’ format that is acquirable for relevant businesses of all sizes and needs.
In this sense, the ability of shipping businesses to evolve or mature alongside their peers should not be constrained by cost. Ultimately, those businesses which fail now to adopt comprehensive IT solutions which provide solid foundations for our evolution into Maritime 4.0 will be left behind. Evolution is, after all, about adapting in order to survive.