June 13, 2022

Paving the road to automation

To truly automate processes and to get meaningful analytics, some requirements need to be fulfilled first.

By Maximilian Hagemann

Paving the road to automation

Everyone is talking about digitalisation in shipping, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic has encouraged companies to embrace technology to facilitate new ways of working. A report by Inmarsat suggested the adoption of digital technology in the maritime sector will be three years ahead of previous estimates by the end of 2022.

Factor in the fuel crisis, a volatile trading environment and rising costs, and it’s clear that shipping companies need solutions to improve their bottom line.

Demand for automated processes, use of artificial intelligence (AI), money-saving efficiencies and better ship management processes has never been higher, and companies also want analytics and insights into their business to inform their decision-making.

Digital technology can achieve these goals, however, it’s important to realise that digitalisation doesn’t just happen overnight. Shipping executives often mistakenly think it’s a relatively simple process involving the movement of data from paper-based systems into digital formats that can be shared across the business. However, this is just the start. For companies to truly automate any process and to get meaningful analytics that can provide insights to transform business they first need good data, and this is the first major challenge.

Data is king

By ‘good data’ we mean data that is consistent and high quality and in a format that can be extracted easily for reports and analytics. Once this kind of data can be captured shipping companies can gain insights into areas such as risk management, maintenance, purchasing or finance to support decision making or make future predictions based on past events. But for most companies, while they may have pots of data, most of it is neither consistent nor accurate, this often comes as a surprise to the management team, and the result is that these companies must take two steps back before going forward.

Furthermore, even if companies have technology systems in place to capture data, not all employees obey the right processes all the time, leading to poor quality data that is inconsistent, incomplete and can’t be used for reporting.

It’s easy to see how these mistakes creep in. Take a simple request from a vessel to purchase essential items for the crew. A crew member might request the items in a digital order form correctly using a standardized catalogue, but at the last minute, someone adds washing powder to the list as a free text. Instead of following the same process, they write the words washing powder on the form, skewing the digital process and making the data unreliable.

To overcome such challenges, companies need to use ship management software that guides and forces them to input accurate and consistent data, software that is rule-driven and demands that rules are followed every time so that data is consistent and accurate. This is seen as quite an inconvenience for companies as it appears to take longer, but this process is the essential first step because, without it, automation simply isn’t possible. The stricter the processes for entering data the better the resulting insights, analytics and calculations will be.

Once a company has good data, it can then automate its processes in a way that will be truly beneficial. For example, using our cloud-based management software if a company wants to make any purchases, they use a standardized digital form that is sent to suppliers, who use the same form to offer their products. This data is then used by the system to automatically show the best prices. It helps companies overhaul purchasing by automating the entire process and gaining real-time visibility into their budgets and operating expenditures (OPEX).

Having this reliable data also offers the option for more automation, e.g. linking purchasing and scheduling information to automate the delivery of goods to the next destination of the vessel. Automating such processes saves companies significant time and money on administration. It also provides reliable data that can easily be compiled into reports or for analytics to help managers make predictions about future expenditure and take actions where needed.

Becoming digitally mature

As more companies embrace digital solutions it’s vital they realise that the journey to becoming digitally mature takes time and cannot be achieved without the cleaning up of data at the start of the process.
With trusted and consistent data, companies can then automate many processes and start to reap the benefits by accessing analytics and insights into their business that can inform business decisions and predictions on purchasing, budgets, staffing needs and even maintenance jobs. Knowing what they will need to pay for over the next year and having insight over processes, such as purchasing, and maintenance is key for ship managers to be able to steer the business with open eyes.

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