Facing the new normal in the maritime industry

7 min read
08 Apr 2020
Torsten Büssow

The pandemic has affected the way we live, work and play in more ways than one. In the midst of all this uncertainty, it is crucial that we carry on. Torsten Büssow, Managing Director, Wärtsilä Voyage Solutions shares his thoughts on how the maritime industry could weather this storm with the help of smart technologies. 

As I sit down to write this, I can’t help but reflect on the momentous changes that have occurred across the world over the past 3 months. Changes that always surprise me by how fast they have come about. 

Hitherto open borders have been closed, the on-demand economics that drove much of global consumption seems to be faltering, and nations are turning protectionist, stockpiling and hoarding essential supplies and goods. The pandemic has threatened the idea of a globalised world and further underlined the fragility of the systems, industries and people that have powered life as we know it. 

This holds especially true for the maritime sector which has the tremendous responsibility of carrying 90% of world trade on its shoulders. The fact that we as consumers are still able to access different goods is testament to the heroic efforts of tens of thousands of seafarers toiling away to ensure that the world’s supply chains don’t crumble. Of course, this comes at a tremendous cost.

Keeping the world supplied

Let’s take the toll on the mariners themselves. They normally work in shifts which range from 1 to 6 months, but the risk of the Coronavirus has made crew changeovers more difficult forcing them to remain onboard their vessels indefinitely. Furthermore, quarantine measures have also been instituted which seem to vary from country to country. Vessels have to remain in port for days on end, adding more pressure to a logistics chain that has been stretched thin. 

Finally, let’s not forget the maintenance of these vessels. A breakdown due to lack of regular repairs could maroon a ship at sea, depriving regions of lifesaving essentials and medical equipment. The smooth functioning of the maritime industry has never been as critical as it is today. 

That said, it is a fact that great crises often bring out the best in human ingenuity, innovation and collaboration. As you read this, shipowners and operators are pooling resources to get relief to their crews, reduce their workload and try every means necessary to streamline processes. One example is remote servicing and maintenance. Before the pandemic hit, the majority of maintenance and service tasks used to be carried out by field service engineers at ports. Now, more of these operations are being done remotely, through digital tools. 

As one of the world’s biggest marine technology providers, Wärtsilä stands ready to offer our expertise and solutions in helping the maritime industry and the rest of the world through this crisis. The current pandemic may well be the tipping point that pushes the maritime sector to digitalise to an extent never seen before

The silver lining

This would have been a difficult claim to make as little as five years ago. Back then, most digital solutions were being designed for vessels with the expectation that they’d be offline most of the time. But now, it has become routine for ships to have both primary and backup satellite communication systems, which means they are almost constantly connected. This opens up tremendous possibilities with vessels having access to virtually unlimited onshore computational power.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine if you have a ship out there with a skeleton crew that is already burdened with more tasks than it normally handles. Having a set-up such as the Voyage Optimisation Solution from Wärtsilä’s Fleet Operations Solutions (FOS) will enable them to complete tasks such as voyage planning, which normally takes several hours, in about 30 minutes. What a 360-degree digital infrastructure, like this, can do is to use the power of connected vessels to execute a host of functions including voyage planning, e-navigation, integrated fleet operations and ship-to-shore reporting. 

That’s not all. With digital solutions, we are able to bring stakeholders including the vessel crew, the onshore crew, port and regulatory authorities etc. onto one information platform. This allows them to seamlessly carry on operations without having to end up exchanging a hundred or more emails. Tasks such as scheduling maintenance would happen more quickly and efficiently with all the information being accessible on one platform by all parties concerned. 

The use of machine learning and big data can also help ports to more effectively plan the movements of goods from ships to shore to its final destination. Containerships today spend on average 6% of their time waiting at anchor, reflecting suboptimal speed profiles. Wärtsilä’s just-in-time arrival solution Navi-Port could help vessels calculate the optimal speed and the port to find the best available berthing slot. As a result, the best route and speed are calculated, reducing the amount of burnt fuel and the waiting time. The same concept could then be expanded inland to ensure that cargo trucks and other vehicles are present to collect cargo only when they are needed and not a moment sooner or later. Such efficiencies have become critical in today’s context.  

This is just the tip of the digital iceberg. The potential use cases are unlimited. And that’s good because the maritime industry is going to need them even after the crisis abates.

A new world order?

As things stand, the pandemic has the potential to make far-reaching changes in how humanity lives, works and consumes goods and services. The shock on global markets and world trade may very well see cargo volumes contract. The lingering fear of infection may not see people venture out to travel for at least a year. That’s how long experts estimate it will take for a vaccine to be developed. 

In this new normal, the maritime sector will have to gear up to different ways of doing business and further pare costs. Remote guidance, which will allow for more efficient crewing may become the norm, as fleets become leaner.  

Wärtsilä has the solutions to see you through this transformation and our size and global reach ensure that we will be able to help you, no matter where you are. It is a guarantee of stability that is much needed in these uncertain times. 

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