Wärtsilä adds its view of digitalisation and shipping’s future

“Smart technology will foster a new era of collaboration and knowledge sharing with customers, suppliers and partners,” said Roger Holm, President, Wärtsilä Marine Solutions when presenting the technology group’s vision of the future in London in late November.

Digitalisation and connectivity are hot topics in the industry at present with Wärtsilä being one of several organisations that are looking to be at the heart of what some believe will be a transformation of the shipping industry.

At the presentation Holm said Wärtsilä intends to lead the industry’s transformation towards a Smart Marine Ecosystem. Describing what this may mean Holm said that industry players are faced with major sources of inefficiency that impose a significant negative impact on business operations and profitability. These inefficiencies can be considered as ‘waste’; the three most notable sources of such waste being overcapacity, inadequate port-to-port fuel efficiency, and time wasted waiting when entering ports and other high traffic areas. Eliminating this waste forms the basis of Wärtsilä’s strategy towards ecosystem thinking.

Wärtsilä sees four primary forces that will re-shape the industry. Shared capacity will improve fill rates and reduce unit costs; Big Data analytics will optimise both operations and energy management; Intelligent Vessels will enable automated and optimised processes; and Smart ports will result in smoother and faster port operations.

These are views that are held by many organisations and are being promoted on various levels by technology groups within the industry and in multi-national projects such as the EU-backed Mona Lisa and STM projects. While there are some obvious benefits from such initiatives they are not fairly distributed among different ship operational frameworks.

Ships which operate to strict schedules such as liners, cruise ships and ferries will benefit far more than cargo vessels operating in the spot market under hugely varying contractual obligations and for diverse chartering and cargo principals.

“Wärtsilä is ideally positioned, together with our customers and partners, for positive disruptive development and to lead the transformation into a new era of shipping. Building on our strong existing portfolio of products, systems, and solutions, the broadest in the marine sector, and on our vast installed base and industry know-how, we shall continue to develop the smart technologies, business models, and competences needed to create a Smart Marine Ecosystem,” said Holm.

Of the commercial organisations competing within the growing area of digitalisation, Wärtsilä would indeed seem to hold some good cards. It has been a pioneer in remote management and diagnostics of its equipment adding marine to the land-based applications that have been around for even longer. Its range of products include engine power and SAM Electronics bridge and navigation systems, plus with its subsidiary Eniram, which was a pioneer in performance management software, it already can combine data from internal and external influences on efficient ship operation.

Wärtsilä has also been able to demonstrate remote operation of vessels over considerable distances when earlier this year the PSV Highland Chieftain was controlled from California while operating in the North Sea. In the presentation Holm hinted at the addition of AI being a next step in developing the company’s capabilities especially in areas such as situational awareness.

“Servicing our customers means supporting them throughout the lifecycle of their installations. This means that we are looking at the smartest way of operating and maintaining assets, as well as optimising performance in order to have the safest, and most environmentally sound and efficient operating profiles. In the future, we shall be looking more holistically at customer business operations.

Instead of optimising a single vessel, we may be optimising a fleet, or even the customer’s business. In the long term, vessel-as-a-service becomes the ultimate means of providing asset and lifecycle management services.” said Pierpaolo Barbone, President, Wärtsilä Services.

Wärtsilä’s vision of improving shipping’s environmental performance does however require a degree of co-operation from the industry that is currently not only lacking but which will be fiercely contested in many areas. While there is some capacity sharing that exists in the alliance arrangements of liner operators and pooling of some tramp vessels, most ship operators are in competition with each other and operational strategies are developed first and foremost to meet customer needs and commercial obligations.

The limited acceptance of the ‘virtual arrival’ concept that was adopted by some oil majors in response to the high fuel costs around the time of the economic crash of 2008, highlights the reluctance of operators to abandon the chartering sector’s established framework. Cargo interests are similarly sceptical of traffic management systems that could see their interests jeopardized by ports allocating arrival and sailing slots and resources on the basis of overall port efficiency rather than on the first come first served basis that is mostly practised today.

These obstacles are recognised by Wärtsilä with Holm saying that a lot of collaboration and co-operation will be required and Wärtsilä or any other company could not drive development alone and would in some cases need to work with its own competitors in different fields. However, Wärtsilä is seeing some interest from several of its clients particularly in the cruise sector.

Some of the possibilities that Wärtsilä would like to explore may develop faster than any regulations that might also be developed but the company recognises that this is something that needs to be addressed over time and lack of regulation should not necessarily act as a drag on innovation.