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Improving time management

But why are we waiting?

Just in time arrival could make a familiar sight—ships queuing outside of the world’s ports—a thing of the past, reducing marine industry emissions in the process. But to make it a reality, the marine industry has some catching up to do. Here’s a look at the technology that could change the way ships come to port.

According to analysis by MarineTraffic (and referenced in this MEPC agenda item), ships spend up to 9% of their time queuing. During this time, they are off-hire but still burning fuel and only a stone’s throw from the quayside. Why do they need to do this? After all, running slower gives them the opportunity to reduce fuel consumption. If there’s a delay, why not slow down and arrive at the port at exactly the right moment? Why not arrive just in time?

Just-in-time arrival (JIT), the practice of slowing down in order to arrive at port precisely when it is needed, could cut shipping’s total CO2 emissions by 10% according to DNV GL. This is no small consideration at a time when vessels will have to effectively cut emissions by 70% over today’s levels to meet IMO targets for 2050. JIT seems like a no-brainer, carrying almost no disadvantages for ships. (Ports might see an increased workload, but that could very easily be offset by automation).

The optimization of supply chains brought on by JIT could alter shipping on the macro scale, too. Maritime economist Martin Stopford foresees the current “bigger is better” philosophy of container shipping giving way to point-to-point deliveries, using smaller, more flexible vessels “…It seems likely that in the coming decades there will be more interest in developing business to business (B2B) shipping services to link the outlying areas of regional economies, both in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere,” argued Stopford.

“Coastal shipping using UBER-style information technology to manage door-to-door transport will divert high-carbon cargo away from congested roads and rail to short sea shipping services.”

Indeed, this is exactly what has happened in the airline industry, where hub-and-spoke approaches using massive jumbo jets have given way to smaller twinjets on longer flights to smaller airports.

Above the parapet

But for shipping, there are a few obstacles to overcome before JIT is a reality. One is the lack of effective protocols for exchange of information between ship and port. Both still tend to communicate over VHF—hardly conducive to long-range communication. Changing this is straightforward, however; every ship now has VSAT, and this confers the ability to communicate over VoIP or a simple text-based IM client.

But by far the bigger problem is an unwillingness by ports to communicate potentially sensitive commercial information to one another, as outlined in the MEPC agenda item referenced above. The IMO’s proposed solution to put in place informal or mandatory agreements to share this data unilaterally, for a level playing field.

The Internet of Things (IoT) and track and trace (T&T) technology could force the hands for ports. The technologies provide the ability for shoreside parties to keep constant track of their assets – whether it be a shipowner and ships; or a cargo owner and their container – via location sensors and cloud computing. With the greater degree of visibility this will bring, it will be harder for shipowners or port operators to justify withholding information – and, the cost-savings presented by JIT.

This is how to do it

Earlier this year, the Digital Container Shipping Association (DCSA) its first interface standards for T&T. The specifications include standardized radio interfaces covering sensor data monitoring, and automatic electronic container registration. It also defined parameters for the radio-frequency identification (RFID) registration of containers. They “can be implemented by carriers, shippers, and third parties to enable cross-carrier shipment tracking,” said the group in a statement.

Thomas Bagge, DCSA CEO, added that the move would “enable its customers to reduce complexity, cut costs and, over time, better manage their end-to-end supply chains.”

Promptly, Orbcomm, Globe Tracker, Traxens, Nexxiot, Wirepas, the LoRA alliance, and others secured compliance with the new standard. That so many parties are signed up already is promising. It could prevent a “walled gardens” situation, in which established firms monopolize information and prevent innovative start-ups from forming.

“Wirepas embraces standards and open API’s and has goals for global interoperability,” said Wirepas CEO, Teppo Hemiä. “With the connections, the smart containers become a global proxy to connect the actual shipments inside. That’s the power of highly scalable and fully de-centralized networking.”

Keeping cool under pressure

But what does an IoT-enabled container actually look like? Hapag-Lloyd recently brought 100,000 reefer containers online as part of its Hapag-Lloyd LIVE real-time container monitoring program. Reefers will likely be the first containers outfitted, as their perishable cargos are the most susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity. This is an important consideration when cargos often originate in the tropics and vessels might sail through the equatorial Suez- or Panama Canals, or—soon—over the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route (NSR).

“Customers expect more reliable supply chains, so the industry needs to change and invest sufficiently. It is imperative that we understand and fulfil our customers’ needs faster than our competitors,” said Juan Carlos Duk, Managing Director Global Commercial Development at Hapag-Lloyd, in 2019. “Inviting our customers to further shape our real-time monitoring products right from the beginning will give them an opportunity to receive products that are tailor-made for their needs.”

This is not so very far away from initiatives to prevent another form of waste, albeit a much more spectacular version: container ship fires. Industry struggles with mis- or non-declared dangerous cargos are ongoing. When these catch fire, the blaze spreads to the surrounding containers and can write off entire shipments—and vessels with them. But monitoring container temperatures and identifying the presence of smoke would give crew a head start if firefighting is needed, protecting lives and cargos.

The bigger picture

Trouble is, if you want to out-compete land-based transportation, you must catch up with it. Trucking companies are way ahead of shipping in terms of tracking, monitoring, and intelligently deploying their assets. Though innocuous taken by itself, T&T will be the first step on this road if JIT is ever to become a reality.