at Wärtsilä in Denmark

The Silk Road on Water

In 2017, the value of global seaborne trade was estimated to be around 12 trillion USD with roughly 60% coming from worldwide container trade. According to industry sources, in 1980 the volume of goods travelling across the seas and oceans was around 100 million metric tons. Since that time vessels have grown significantly larger from Panamax-class to ultra-large container vessels (ULCV) class, and the amount of goods being transported has grown to 244 million metric tons in 2015.

With approximately 500 shipping companies operating today, there are over 200 ports that can handle large containerships. Shipping trade routes are today’s silk road, as 80% of global trade by volume utilises maritime transportation. The most active shipping route today is the Trans-Pacific route between Asia and North America along which 26 million TEUs (Twenty Foot Equivalent Units) was transported in 2017, with the Asia-to-Northern Europe route being the second most utilised.


The concept of transporting goods dates back to the 1600s, a time when goods such as tea and silk were rare and desirable commodities. The first registered cargo of tea, for example, was transported from Japan to Holland by the East Indies Company in 1606.

During World War II, the US government began transporting supplies to Europe. The demand for speedy unloading and loading of goods was eased with the development of small containers.

The containerships of today have also grown over the past six decades. Utilising the intermodal shipping container designed by Malcolm P. McLean, seamless loading and unloading between trucks and ships, as well as improved cargo handling efficiency at ports has also reduced theft and inventory costs.


As the industry booms, it is critical that it grows sustainably. According to the European Union, maritime now emits an estimated 1000 million tonnes of CO2 annually and is responsible for about 2.5% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Depending on future market demands – and future energy mix – pollution from seafaring operations is expected to rise significantly. To curb emissions, the EU has set a mandate to reduce GHG emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by the year 2050.

There are many opportunities for shipping, from the adoption of renewable energy supplies to automated vessels, all of which will help reduce emissions, increase safety and improve logistics, eliminating inefficiencies that exist in the industry today. For example, low capacity utilisation rates are a common issue; if ships are not optimally loaded, this increases the amount of traffic in the harbour. Ships sailing without cargo are another concern that must be addressed.

According to the International Maritime Organization, a ship’s energy consumption and CO2 emissions could be reduced by up to 75% through the implementation of existing technologies and more efficient operations.

While road haulage is evolving towards electrification and autonomous solutions the shipping industry is also waking up to the potential of new technologies, albeit slowly. Today, most vessels are still powered by bunker fuel, the dirtiest fuel on the planet. It has been estimated that a single ship produces the equivalent amount of pollution as 50 million cars.

Fortunately, container ships running on liquefied natural gas (LNG) are changing the game. In 2015, the world’s first LNG-powered vessel, the Isla Bella, was launched. LNG technology drastically reduces sulphur oxide emissions by up to 90%, and cuts CO2 emissions by up to 25%.

But it’s not all about the hardware. Digitalisation is another solution for the maritime industry.


Safety and sustainability are at the core of successfully operating at sea and vital to safeguarding global trade. Wärtsilä’s Smart Marine Strategy aims to minimise waste through the application of innovative technologies, new ways of working, disruptive business models, and industry-wide cooperation.

According to Mauro Sacchi, Director, Strategy and Business Development, Marine Solutions at Wärtsilä, “The fundamental principle of Wärtsilä’s Smart Marine Strategy is ecosystem thinking”. Simply stated, the ‘smart marine’ capability, as Wärtsilä sees it, is what allows the company to connect an intelligent vessel with two smart-technology-equipped ports, to optimise the voyage from one to another.

“If we try to simplify this picture for a moment, we have a ship, if you will, moving from one location to another. There are some systems to manage: the allocation of the boat, anchoring, some logistics to execute in the harbour, and then the vessel sails some distance, before arriving and undergoing a similar process once again.”

“If you take this value chain from end to end, and you imagine how to create the optimal ecosystem in which it can exist and function, it would be one in which every process takes place flawlessly. In principle, there would be zero waiting time due to delays, or issues of any kind at terminals – no delay whatsoever at either the point of embarkation or the destination.”

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore attracts 130,000 vessel calls annually. Recently, Wärtsilä and the MPA signed a partnership agreement to develop and test intelligent vessels capabilities with local operators, and pathways to safe and sustainable autonomous operations. 


In 2013, the European Union set intermediary emissions reduction targets for the maritime transport sector. These targets aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. To achieve this goal, all new ships built in the 2030s will have to be fossil free. From fuel cells to solar sails and other innovative energy technologies, maritime transport is about to evolve to a whole new level.

As Mr Sacchi concludes; “No one company alone can drive the transformation – cocreation is required to drive progress in the right direction.” Increased efficiencies can only be gained by industry players coming together to develop and implement the right solutions that will help raise the bar for worldwide shipping and maritime transportation. The light at the end of the tunnel is an opportunity to increase safety, optimize operations, sail sustainably and increase profitability.

© 2021 Wärtsilä