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Not yet a 'revolution': Managing data and losing skills

Managing data and losing skills
February 13th, 2018

Panos Patsadas from DS Multibulk questions shipping’s digital transformation.

There are a few prominent figures in shipping, who see the digital transformation as the next big revolution in the industry. The trend of all trends so to say. It certainly looks so on paper. The topic is dominating the maritime press on a daily basis, albeit often confusing digital transformation with blockchain. Everyone talks about this digital transformation, but no one appears entirely sure on what it really means. Is it unification of all transactions under one digital currency? Is it BLs and MRs digitally managed without the need of proofreading. Is it autonomous ships? It could be all of the above, but could be none.

I would personally refrain from calling it a revolution, at least for now, as I am having great difficulty to compare it in terms of breakthroughs to McLean’s container, or Inui’s inception of the bulbous bow back in 1962. How will it improve our industry for quality is the first, and quite frankly my only concern?

For sure container lines, where the commodity is standardised, and the data volume to be handled is immense, can benefit from such technology. Standard BL form, standard MR format, remarks generic, it will for sure make the life of an operations department easier and the work volume manageable. But then, what does this do for the people who work in this department? Are they really shipping people any more, or are they completely detached from the supply chain process? You can take a kid out of school and teach them how to use a software, sure. But can you teach them the supply chain and its mechanics? The actual process on which such software was built?

It is bad enough over the years, listening to operators working for reputable companies, screaming on the phone about BLs not being present at discharge port, without having the slightest clue if the delay is due to a LoC and the bank, or due to someone being negligent.

It is even worse listening to young guys/girls screaming at the master on the phone, for losing a day at sea or going three knots below C/P speed, but not having the slightest clue how to read the full report whether it be swell , ME pitch, winds, etc. The point I am trying to make is that digital transformation will make it very easy to pick out right from wrong on a big set of data, but it will completely wipe out the ‘Why?’ question which captures the whole essence of our industry. The question ‘Why?’ is the cornerstone of learning, and I fear digital transformation will eventually wipe it out,

We can of course not ignore the visionaries out there wanting to build a better future, a digital one, where human error is minimised. From Tesla, Wartsila, to IBM their motives are pure. So this is not about having a go at them. There are other industries, less human-intensive, that can only benefit from digitisation. But shipping, I am afraid is not one of them.

My personal opinion is that industries evolve either because they are ready to change from within, or because someone has reinvented the wheel. Digital transformation is not re-inventing the wheel for sure. At the same time I really don’t see the industry as being ready from within to take the leap. For the time being, and this may well change in near future, I do believe a few support industries, have discovered a new way to make money by taking existing technology and try to fit it to shipping. To some extent I do feel it is racketeering being approached by software or innovation companies who know nothing about how our business is run and try to tell us we need products, but without telling us why. We have simply put too many years following ships, (many sailing on them) making laytime calculations, reading through C/Ps and BLs line by line to take on face value what industry outsiders try to sell us.