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Why isn’t digitalization reducing reporting workloads?
The burden of data collection on board is increasing, as more and more stakeholders are demanding access to vessel data from a growing number of installed sensors. It has reached the point where some crews are spending so much time on data reporting that their other responsibilities are being impacted.
The reality at sea
The risks associated with seafarer workload were made clear in Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty’s recently published 2022 Safety and Shipping Review. The report notes that while demand for the crew is high, many skilled and experienced seafarers are leaving the industry. A serious shortfall of officers is predicted within five years. For those who remain, morale is low due to commercial pressures, compliance duties and workloads.
Crews stuck in heavily pressurized working environments are more at risk of making mistakes. AGCS data shows that 75% of shipping incidents involve human error, and the transition to alternative fuels will likely bring a heightened risk of machinery breakdowns, among other risks, as new technology is implemented and as crews adapt to new procedures.
Seafarers themselves are reporting on these issues in the latest Seafarers Happiness Index (Quarter 1 2022). One seafarer said: “The workload is getting increasingly high with minimum crews on board, rest hours are only complied with on paper, yet none of the authorities pays heed. Shipping has become a floating jail where you’re just expected to work endlessly like robots without questioning the work scenario.”
Others voiced concern that captains are becoming “office workers”, This means that maintenance schedules are harder to follow, and dealing with problems is made even more challenging.
What’s going wrong?
Obviously, new technologies can help ease the task of collecting and reporting data. Why then are digital projects failing to deliver on this objective? The reality is that digital tools are only one part of the solution. New technologies can help reduce the time spent by crew members inputting data onboard, but if all stakeholders don’t agree on which data should be collected and assessed, new reports will keep being created and existing ones will not disappear.
The greatest challenge, then, is for organizations to understand what data they need to collect and how they will exploit its potential. Stakeholders need to reach a consensus on what data is needed and which key performance indicators (KPIs) should be used, rather than just insisting that data is collected to support their own KPIs in isolation from others.
The difficulty in achieving this is a consequence of the size and complexity of shipping organizations and the maritime industry’s digital ecosystem as a whole. There’s often a lack of strategic planning and coordination in digitalization projects, so while companies may not be struggling in digitizing the reporting, they are not making sure that data exploitation is optimized and workloads are actually reduced.
As an example, it’s extremely common to see reports from maritime systems, including Vessel Monitoring Systems, being fed into a database and then largely forgotten. The data may have been gathered for compliance purposes, but the opportunity to use it to improve safety or operational efficiency is lost. Analysis of multiple events of a similar nature can reveal recurring issues or operational trends. Once those trends are identified, particular actions can be taken to prevent recurrence or better prepare crews for future occurrences. In the longer term, data-driven insights may highlight the need for structural changes on newbuilds or inform decisions on new fuels and the energy transition.
Project planning should include an analysis of data redundancy. To have a homogeneous reporting framework that will work across different departments in an organization, all stakeholders need to agree on a common vocabulary and set of definitions. For example, this means having a common definition for terms such as ‘cargo’, ‘incident’, ‘delay’ or ‘stand-by’, with stakeholders agreeing on what each term actually means and what data is to be gathered and reported.
The human element
As data takes a more prominent role in shipping operations, the human element remains fundamental, driving the development and implementation of digital solutions. Captains, charterers, and shipowners should be front and center. The importance of their personal experience cannot be overstated.
Digitalization is also the first step towards automation, with the potential to help reduce the risk of human errors as well as operational costs. In maritime, where we have teams working long hours at sea, digitalization can help not only optimize their tasks but improve their work quality and welfare onboard. However, this digitalization has to be taken into consideration at every level of the organization before the benefits can be felt by crews.
For example, an excellent way to optimize engine behaviour and utilization is by collecting and analyzing data and bringing in human expertise and experience. In a perfect world, captains could easily boost the efficiency of their voyages by switching off engines or changing power configurations in response to relatively minor changes in weather or operational conditions. However, this is not the reality experienced by crews. When faced with fast-changing schedules and meeting demands from ashore, captains and chief engineers must use the limited time they have available to juggle between adjusting the engine configuration for a specific operation and the need to be prepared for subsequent requirements.
To be successful in digitalization, we need people to talk about the realities on the ground and create a true dialogue. The importance of user experience cannot be overstated, and investment in software design is important to ensure that all users are comfortable with the role they are playing and the goals that they are working to achieve.
Ultimately, digital transformations are more about culture change than technology. Digitalizing an organization requires, above all else, a big-picture view of how technology supports human expertise, and how teams work together, ashore and at sea.