Mark O’Neil is perhaps a little bit sheepish about the fact he was often quoted in the maritime press as saying “Digitalise or Die” just a few years ago. He calls it a Y2K feeling (referring to the unfounded global concern in 1999 when clocks and calendars in complex machinery switched from ’99 to ’00). Today he admits there was a lot of naivety about what digitalisation of the shipping industry meant some three or four years ago, which was at about the same time that Columbia Ship Management and Marlow were forging ahead with their merger, and the fundamental ship management landscape was looking particularly fluid.
The difficulties of 2008 had put the fragmented ship management world n the back foot. A number of mergers and acquisitions began to be announced and as O’Neil points out “we had to HAD to optimise to be compelling to the market.” Therefore the notion of digitalisation, regardless of how vague it was, was compelling.
“At the merger we needed to update our platforms, so both companies had to look at if”, says the president of the final merged entity. “But it was when we got to work alongside Lufthansa that we saw that digitalisation was really more than the technology, it was about innovation and processes as well, they have more of an impact than the technology”.
But O’Neil also recognises another problem, it is as dangerous to be too far ahead o the curve as to be behind it. As a company with customers that were not bought into the idea of digitalisation, it was necessary to bring them onboard too.
Digital Control Rooms
It was also in late 2017 that Columbia teamed up with Cyprus technology firm Tototheo Maritime to develop the ship managers digital control room, or Performance Optimisation Control Room to use its official name at the company’s headquarters in Limassol.
That for Columbia was the start of its digital journey that still continues today, and is more focused on pragmatic, but none-the-less innovative changes to processes.
While O’Neil says the focus is less on the technology of digitalisation, and more on the processes of ship management and the innovation that can bring about increased efficiencies and competitiveness, that use of technology is still strong.
He may be less likely to say “digitalise or die” and more likely to say “people and process” but the company still has a solid belief in the technology it and others have begun to use. The Limassol control room already has the ability to use artificial intelligence and machine learning as its receives vast amounts of vessel data to help create fleet statistics that allow algorithms to pick up anomalies and trends that the human would d find hard or possible impossible to detect. It can also detect when data that has been manually entered is wrong.
Columbia’s Future and its Amazon moment
The changes to the technologies and the deployment of the control room has, according to O’Neil, enhanced the company’s appreciation of people, which is a part of the company’s strategy in 2020.
Crew and staff training and offering those that work with clients the information they need when they need it is a focus. Columbia Crews have now been given Adobe. Developed Apps for their mobile devices that offers training modules that can be worked through offline. By having e-learning platform that is not dependent on connectivity they can give crews more control over their progress
O’Neil also says the company may also be rolling our hologram technology to enhance training too during the year.
The ship manager is also rolling out a new procurement platform in 2020 that will enable purchasers on ships and in offices to understand the full costs of purchase, including the last mile delivery, as well as specifying delivery data and time.
Columbia already has its GenPro (General Procurement Company Limited which was founded by Columbia Shipmanagement and Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement) ) platform which negotiates framework agreements with major suppliers, but this extended service will include the digital shop front bit, plus the logistics element. Just like Amazon with a door-to-door Just-in-Time service, says O’Neil.
It is, he says, all about the people, making it easier for them to do the best job they can.
The long view
One interesting aspect of a focus on people is the recognition that the people who are joining ship management firms are far more digitally literate than their predecessors, and this digital landscape will also, says O’Neil, help build gender neutrality and enhance diversity.
But beyond 2020 or even the next couple of years O’Neil believes shipping needs to take a different view. He believes we should not look at the future ship from the perspective of today.
He is not a believer in fully automated and unmanned deep-sea vessels in the coming decade or two, though he sees them in certain circumstances when they operate between two sophisticated endpoints and there is little risk during the short passage in between.
While he does believe crew numbers will reduce onboard, he says this development should not be looked at with our thoughts on the present ship design. There will be much better communication packages, higher and more secure connectivity with shore-based experts and crew, while some sit on a vessel for a voyage.
“The communication world is changing,” he concludes.” It is a bit like digitalisation at its outset when we all missed the point. Communication will be far more fluid and imaginative than now.”