Thursday, January 31, 2019

Norwegian Shipping Boss Explains Digital Technology and Autonomous Vessel Aims

A Practical Vision for Bringing the Ocean Borne Freight Sector Up to Date
Shipping News Feature
NORWAY – WORLDWIDE – When a company has survived in one of the most turbulent industries for 157 years then the current boss has a right to expound the corporate view of the future, and explain the steps his organisation is taking to accommodate it. Such is the case for Thomas Wilhelmsen who has been talking on the subjects of autonomous shipping, and how to maintain a prime position in the world of maritime freight.

At 43 the present incumbent is the fifth generation of his family to hold the reins to the business which bears his name. The group has almost 15,000 employees, over 9,000 working at sea. Wilhelmsen Ship Management serves nearly 400 vessels globally, while Wilhelmsen Ships Service handles approximately 75,000 ports calls (2017), making around 210,000 product deliveries a year (or one delivery every three minutes) to about 50% of the entire global merchant fleet.

NorSea Group, in which it owns a 73% stake, handled over 1 million tonnes of equipment for offshore installations in 2017, while WilNor Governmental Services has established itself as a key NATO supplier, recently providing logistical support for the Trident Juncture exercise in Norway, all of which and more saw the group achieve an operating profit of $176 million in 2017 from a total income of $793 million.

So does this mean that the CEO can rest on the company laurels? It would hardly seem so and in March 2018 Wilhelmsen got together with Kongsberg to launch Massterly, the world’s first autonomous shipping firm which we explained at the time intended to offer a complete supply chain for autonomous vessels, from design and development, to control systems, logistics services and vessel operations. The man himself explained the thinking behind it:

“If we want to help shape the future of the industry, not just this business, we have to position ourselves at the vanguard of development. Autonomous shipping may seem like a distant dream but, through projects such as the Yara Birkeland (Yara’s battery powered autonomous container ship, launching in 2019), it will be a reality, albeit on a limited scale, very soon. There’s a need for the infrastructure and solutions to support that development and we can achieve a commercial advantage by being a first mover in delivering it.

“Furthermore, as yet there’s no regulatory framework for autonomous shipping. So, if we can play a key role in enabling developments, we can also help inform and mould regulations using our expertise and experience to steer a course for the future. That’s an exciting opportunity to genuinely ‘shape maritime’.”

“There’s a window of opportunity here. The industry will be able to cherry pick relevant systems out of the autonomous domain and install them on existing vessels, enabling next generation conventional shipping. With greater control we can cut emissions, create efficiencies, improve safety and enhance industry sustainability. So we shouldn’t be looking at autonomy in isolation, but rather as a facilitator for nurturing wider development. It needn’t be a case of ‘all or nothing’.”

Now the company aims to establish the infrastructure and services needed to design and operate autonomous vessels, creating, amongst other things, a network of land-based control centres to monitor and operate a new breed of ships. The first such centre, Wilhelmsen reveals, is to be based at the group HQ in Lysaker, Oslo. The Wilhelmsen group is however built on a solid and practical history of maritime operations, something which the man fully understands and despite the push to modern technology, last year also saw the launch of a ‘unique maritime digital start-up’, Raa Labs, the group CEO explains that it is the traditional pedigree range of services on which everything rests. He continues:

“I don’t want this company to be seen as some kind of digital whizz kid. There’s been a lot of focus on Massterly, our drone developments, smart rope, 3D printing etc., and on one level that’s excellent, but it’s hard-core, practical and operational maritime competency that forms the foundation of this business. What we want to do is take that conventional platform and utilise new digital skills to build upon it, positioning ourselves to take advantage of future business opportunity.

“It’s about a balance, a union, not one thing or the other, but two competencies informing and feeding off one another to shape a better business, a better industry. One that delivers enhanced value, transparency and sustainability. There’s always going to be a need for maritime skill, for real operational understanding. From the design phase through to operations, people need to feed in individual expertise of stability, navigation, loading and discharging, a whole range of different scenarios. That knowledge doesn’t stand in opposition to digital competency, it helps inform it.”

The development of Raa Labs required a start-up seeding of $2 million with half each coming from the Wilhelmsen group and Wallenius Wilhelmsen with the object of delivering the next generation of digital solutions for both internal use and by external customers. Thomas Wihelmsen says one should think of it as a greatly expanded app developer and that he is ‘amazed’ by the calibre of the seven digital experts so far employed, continuing:

“It’s a digital accelerator the whole industry can use [and] they understand that shipping is a huge industry with huge potential for digital. As such they can make a genuine difference, impacting upon the future of a sector that transports 90% of global trade, as well as within the oil and gas and renewable energy segments. With our backing and industry expertise allied to their skills, Raa is in a unique position to create both impact and value. It’s a case of watch this space.”

Wilhelmsen will be appearing at the Nor Shipping 2019 trade fair which will be held in Lillestrøm between 4 and 7 June.

Photo: Thomas Wilhelmsen.