Wilhelmsen Ships Service has found a process- centric approach to digitalisation involving everything from smart ropes to 3D printed parts.
Digitalisation is coming to the maritime industry. Shipping companies will need to determine how they embrace it. For many, data will be the primary driver.
However, Wilhelmsen Ships Service has found a process-centric approach to digitalisation can be just as effective. There is a lot of excitement in the shipping industry about the role data can have in terms of influencing digitalisation.
It will undoubtedly play its part in shaping the future for maritime, but it isn’t the only aspect that will drive digitalisation in the coming years.
“Data is important, but in order to translate data into knowledge and then usable intelligence for decision making, you need an intimate understanding of the business,” Mr Nakul Malhotra, Vice President of Technical Solutions and Marketing Marine Products at Wilhelmsen noted. “You need to know the mechanics of today’s processes and pain points and have the clarity of thought to identify relevant, tangible developments that can solve real problems, particularly at the transition phase.”
For Wilhelmsen, digitalisation was about co-creating with customer and supplier development partners and bridging the vast amounts of domain expertise that exists in the current ecosystem and combining it with new competencies that are increasingly showing relevance in the maritime context, according to Mr Malhotra.
“The ability to find practical solutions is when you get tomorrow’s solutions to today’s problems,” Mr Malhotra stated. “This doesn’t happen if you create a disconnect between the ground-level realities that exist in the interfaces or business processes that make this industry turn today to the new visions that are being put forward.”
This is what led Wilhelmsen to adopt a process-centric approach to digitalisation. While this approach doesn’t ignore the role data can have, it may be better suited to cope with the unique challenges of the shipping industry.
“Process-centric digitalisation is just a more focused approach that leverages useful data early on. I think this is all the more relevant for an industry dealing with huge disaggregated domain knowledge and legacy systems,” Mr Malhotra said. “We wanted to utilise the tremendous relationship we have with stakeholders across the value chain. So, rather than arbitrarily collecting millions of data points and dealing with the mammoth task of data cleansing without a clear outcome, we focused on specific process pain points that had relevance to our own business.”
However, not everyone is as bullish on process-centric digitalisation as Wilhelmsen. Opponents often cite a belief that the approach only has a limited scope and is creatively restrictive.
“The notion that a processcentric approach will only create minor improvements to current business models and not allow for creative approaches is a myopic one in my view. I believe that new and creative approaches to business stem, not from whether the decision is process or data centric, but rather from a pointed focus on the outcomes desired from any model,” Mr Malhotra contends.
He continues, “The focus on outcomes creates the invaluable question of whether we are spending too much
time, money or effort on developing things that will not have value going forward. Historically, we have used the term marketing myopia, where companies have defined their market in a short term and limited way and as a consequence get disrupted by new players. Organisations that constantly question themselves on what it is they really do and where do they really create value will stay relevant, particularly in the face of disruption.”
Digitalisation is set to disrupt several areas within the maritime industry as has been the case in numerous other verticals. However, Mr Malhotra warns there will be winners and losers in the process as more firms journey down the digitalisation trail. It will be vital to take small, meaningful steps given the challenges many companies will face along the way.
“To see the level of discussion and intent taking place currently is great. But, I do get concerned when organisations talk about many visionary potentials, but with little or no tangible developments and make no steps towards the fulfilment of that promise,” Mr Malhotra said. “We cannot underestimate the cultural bridging that is required in this transition, particularly for large legacy organisations where competencies sit across multiple generations.”
As is the case with most technological advancements, the first movers and early adopters of digitalisation will need to cope with a steep learning curve that will ultimately provide benefits to others within the shipping industry. Those opting to wait before implementing digitalisation will face their own set of challenges when trying to replicate what has been done before them.
“There will be many who are trying to understand what this means for them and the steps needed to ensure future relevance which is part of the process. Those who expect to copy and paste solutions without linking them closely with specific business requirements and individual environments will fail,” Mr Malhotra explained. “It is those who ignore the fact that outcomes can be delivered faster, smarter and better with the new models digitalisation provides who will become irrelevant.”
Data is here to stay in the shipping industry, regardless of if a company takes a process- or data-centric approach to digitalisation. The industry as a whole will need to work together to ensure it can be used effectively.
“Being reliant on data is not a bad thing, however with it comes responsibilities and new challenges that need to be addressed. Ignoring these challenges is dangerous,” Mr Malhotra stated. “The industry needs to focus, collaborate and create an eco-system that is safe, simple and reliable in order to allow more stakeholders to participate and take steps to drive ambitions forward.” Solving pain points with tech
Wilhelmsen’s process-centric digitalisation efforts are starting to pay dividends as the company rolls out practical solutions to old problems. One of these is the firm’s Smart Ropes system, a modern approach to eliminating the issues with mooring ropes that have been around as long as ships have been docking in ports.
These ropes are embedded with a sensor pack that provides real time information on a number of characteristics with the data sent to a base station located on deck. This enables a crew to moor their vessels safer than with traditional methods. More importantly, it is the type of innovation that data-driven digitalisation alone wouldn’t necessarily pick up on.
Another innovation Wilhelmsen is working on is the Automated Water Boiler Maintenance Solution. The technology uses sensors and communication modules to monitor and control parameters in the boilers used on board a vessel.
“With boiler repairs being expensive and crew competence, or demands on crew time, an ongoing challenge, this is an interesting solution to the problem of boiler water management,” Mr Malhotra described.
Last year, Wilhelmsen announced it was collaborating with the Ivaldi Group to look at in-port 3D printing opportunities for marine products and spare parts. Mr Malhotra noted the two partners, along with other stakeholders, are testing this at a pilot micro-factory in Singapore.
“3D printing has the potential to reduce lead times and freight costs for small non-critical parts that are taking up too much time and effort for procurement and technical teams to source,” Mr Malhotra said. “In addition, we have seen examples already of potential improvements in design and assemblies of small parts that increase efficiency or effectiveness of the components.”
Chatbots to cut down response times and augmented reality are two other areas Wilhelmsen is focusing on. The end goal with all of Wilhelmsen’s digitalisation efforts is to find real, tangible solutions to problems, many of which can’t be identified with data alone.
“As you can see we are looking at a number of technology areas with practical, relevant applications that either cut down response times, help boost effectiveness or solve specific issues on board vessels. There are a number of other developments in the pipeline,” Mr Malhotra pointed out.
Above left: Wilhelmsen is developing an augmented reality solution as part of its process-centric approach to digitalisation. Above: Spare marine parts made by 3D printers, such as these, are an innovation Wilhelmsen is working on with the Ivaldi Group