Ahead of his keynote presentation at the European Marine Intelligence Conference in Hamburg near the end of May, where Wärtsilä’s chief digital officer Marco Ryan will present five things every maritime business must start doing now to stake a claim in the new digital world, here are five other things you can expect from Wärtsilä’s self-described ‘digital head chef’.
Marine Propulsion: Let’s start with the theme of the conference. In your mind, what are the most impactful transformations that digital technologies are currently creating within the shipping industry?
Marco Ryan: I think it is very easy to be seduced by the hype of digital. There is a lot of talk of new partnerships and focus on autonomous vessels. And these are really important topics, and of course we all have a view on them. But they are somewhat difficult to define, and they are somewhat intangible ...
When we look at digital transformation … for (Wärtsilä) it is very much about, ‘How do you create value differently?'
We are very much focused on helping [our customers] look at operational efficiency and using data analytics and insights and new tools to really optimise the voyage management component.
We are really looking at ‘What happens when you are a company like Wärtsilä where you have got such a massive product portfolio?’ If you connect that portfolio differently, and if you share insights, what way can you transform how the industry operates?’
We see the transformation (to a smart technology company) not as a destination, but as a shared journey. And I think that shared journey requires us to use technology – use data, use analytics, use insight … and use those in a way that drives real value, rather than just following the hype curve and trying to suggest a world that is still quite some distance off.
Because [the transition to enable digitally- based services] needs to be tangible, it needs to give real benefit quickly.
MP: Where do you see the most uptake and growth in emerging digital technologies in shipping?
MR: That is not an easy one to answer, because I think there is an element of, ‘Where can we see stuff that has an impact that we all understand now?’ …
If you look at the industry and the way (Wärtsilä) approach our own transformation – as well as the transformation of the industry – [we believe] you have got to transform the core.
It might involve new technology, but it requires that technology being used and commercialised differently. So, we look at it in two ways: transform the core and grow the new.
Now, the focus of the moment is very much on operational data, on driving efficiency, on optimising the sea leg, on safety, on using tools to help us do what we currently do better, more efficiently.
And then there are – if you look at ‘growing the new’, obviously – there are things like, ‘What is the impact of additive manufacturing?’ ‘What is the impact of blockchain?’ …
But I’m really interested, for example, in a combination [of technologies] …
Where one thing happens on its own, we’ll get some cost efficiencies. And I guess the bit that many are struggling to work out is ‘What is the net? What is the combination of a blockchain with AI, with hybrid … that creates new opportunities?’
But (Wärtsilä) are being very pragmatic. We look at technologies, we are constantly evaluating, testing, learning, trying. Trying to see where the hype is, what the combination of the opportunities are, where the value can be, how quickly you can prove something. And trying to run very pragmatic tests to help the industry understand that this is about applying technology to find value, not just technology for the sake of technology. …
So, we are in a unique position compared to some of our competitors that we have the largest product portfolio, and we have an energy business that gives us a very different insight into the energy management and storage and things like that, so there are all the components. A lot of this has happened in the last 18 months, acquisitions that we have done, so we are aggressively trying to build that … new confluence to deliver that perfect … solution.
But it takes time, and because of IMO regulations and all sorts of other things, these are not things that you would necessarily just do immediately, there is a heartbeat to the maritime industry which is different from, perhaps, other industries.
MP: What can be done to break free from these conservative constraints in the shipping industry?
MR: I would challenge slightly the words you used. They are your words, not mine. I would never characterise the marine industry as conservative. I think it is incredibly progressive. I think there are so many companies looking at innovation, new ways of working [and] trying to do things. It is perhaps one of the most open industries to change that I have worked in.
I think there are some brakes on how fast that change can happen for perfectly good reasons: safety, regulatory compliance, environmental emissions and so on … that means change simply cannot happen overnight. And I think we all understand that.
It does not mean we do not get frustrated that it does not happen faster, but I think we all understand the reason that those constraints are there.
And I think the other thing is that, historically, this has been a very capital-intensive industry. Therefore – because of the sheer numbers and size in building a vessel – typically, the payback is over multiple years, tens of years, which means that the pace of change is partly governed by that capital expenditure model, historically.
Now, I think what is really interesting is just how much of the industry is looking at every part of that value chain – from the financiers, to the builders, to the operators, to the charterers, to the owners … and saying ‘How sustainable is this, given the pace of technology change?’
So I think there are really good questions being asked, but I do not think we have all the answers yet. So that is why we keep seeing dramatic change.
There is a common parlance that this is a conservative, regulated industry. It is certainly regulated, it certainly has long timeframes. I do not know if that makes it conservative, it is just the dynamic of the industry.
But I think there are very clear signs [of change]. We are one of the companies – there are plenty of others – who are very progressive in their thinking, who are really just trying to find a way to really drive value.