A tale of two industries
Image left to right – Director of Marine and Offshore, Lloyd’s Register Nick Brown, Chairman of INTERCARGO John Platsidakis, Chairman of Arista Shipping Alex Panagopoulos and Signal Maritime CEO Ioannis Martinos.
In the heady days of the dotcom boom, a digital pioneer remarked to me that there was a religious aspect to what was then still called e-commerce. You’re either a believer, he said, or you’re not.
If that religious undertone was present more than 15 years ago, the fervour surrounding digital transformation today is tenfold stronger, its adherents more devoted, its apostates ever more belligerent.
Without labouring the metaphor it does illustrate the challenge facing the industry – the main thrust of the recent Lloyd’s List Business Briefing during Posidonia 2018 – that one faction of the industry believes in change, while another believes in the status quo.
In this case, the unbelievers can broadly be defined by length of service and seniority, the believers by relative youth and their position relative to the first group, on whom they depend to sell services.
To Chairman of INTERCARGO John Platsidakis, challenges are more about spot and charter rates than bits and bytes. The industry he says is enhancing asset management, trying to understand what the implications and how they answer the needs of shipping.
“New technology has been adopted onshore but we are too far away from putting technology on ship – and we are very far away from the concept of autonomy,” he said.
This is the kind of roadblock that shipmanagers like Signal Maritime’s CEO Ioannis Martinos are trying to clear, not only in the cause of efficiency but also to try and improve their slim margins.
His company’s focus is on tools that can turn the unstructured data he receives from ships into something meaningful. “The noon report creates inefficiencies all down the line and it is characteristic of the way stakeholders to owners receive data.”
Genial and quietly spoken, he clearly understands the power relationships in play. His aim is simply ‘using tools that help us trade our ships with a superior view of the market’.
Inside and outside Greece this is becoming the industry’s daily bread, with fleet management systems of all stripes being deployed to help owners track not just their own assets but their competitors’ too.
Chairman of Arista Shipping Alex Panagopoulos is taking the message in another direction; designing bulk carriers powered by LNG. Asked if he agreed that first movers don’t profit from a step change he was quick to agree that the best argument against LNG as fuel was ‘five minutes with the average owner’.
But Panagopoulos has a zealot’s belief and a way with a soundbite. Referring to the ‘build it and they will come nature of LNG’s availability for bunkering, he said “It’s not a case of chicken and egg, it’s a chicken omelette. We are bringing the eggshell with us, we don’t need LNG in every port.” The efficiencies of building a commoditised ship type are there to be embraced he said and there are no first mover advantages, “even we are behind the curve and will be commoditised”.
To Lloyd’s Register’s Director of Marine and Offshore Nick Brown, future shipping fuels will be an omelette of more than one flavour because the challenge of moving to a zero emission industry is the biggest the industry has faced, easily outpacing the move from coal to oil.
“LNG, LPG batteries or alternatives, it’s a case of what fits for which trade and ship type and strategy,” he said. And he suggested that anyone who still believes that the IMO delays technical progress should consider the International Code for Gas Fuelled Ships which allowed gas-powered cargo ships to be built and trade safely long before the Code was finalised.
While pointing to a decade of remarkable efficiency improvements he also invoked Holy Grail of successful digitalisation; that in order to take the next steps to operational or environmental efficiency, the industry must get over the issue of data ownership and a fear of sharing it.
Class is keen to do this so it can replace calendar-based inspections with planned and predictive maintenance but for the industry, the looming question is always, how do I embrace technology without being swept away in the flood.
This suggests the need for change is behavioural as much as physical; is shipping going to be Uber or the Uber driver. Martinos accepted the need to respect the existing market structure but the tactics for maintaining competitive edge will vary across companies. “We cannot be Uber because it is not possible for one person to have all the information.”
So is Shipping 2.0 still in a start-up phase? Platsidakis was keen to stress the efficiency of shipping given the task it has to perform. For the dry bulk owners that are INTERCARGO’s membership it is still a very physical business marked more by volatility than disruption will little incentive to improve and “a lack of motivation to invest by people with bigger fish to fry.”
Brown advocates for a combination of talent from inside and outside the industry. “Improvements come because others are demanding them, but more learning and pilot projects are needed. We have levels of autonomy already being built-in. In fact we have been doing it for decades, we just haven’t called it that.”
This highlights shipping’s struggle to get truly transformational technologies embedded into shipping. Even Martinos suggested that the sexy concept of machine learning would be ‘useful to structure data and do the boring stuff but doesn’t solve the optimisation problem. The problem is still gathering data’.
No robo-brokers any time soon then, though Panagopoulos as a technology trailblazer said it was ‘inevitable that this kind of progress will trickle down, there is tremendous inefficiency in tramp shipping’.
On this evidence there is evidence that the traditional shipping man is a dying breed – at least not in Greece during Posidonia. Platsidakis agrees it can be challenging to get good seafarers but added. “You have to love the industry. If not find something else to do. Shipping is moving ahead and there’s no way to stop it. We are doing an excellent job [and] what we want is options not regulations.”
You could almost hear the congregation say ‘amen to that’.