Safeguarding Marine Logistics

Today’s sea lanes are more crowded than they have ever been, chock-a-block with bigger [fatter] tankers, heavier loads, and more containers jammed to the hilt with manufactured goods from China, Indonesia, the U.S., Latin America, and elsewhere. In the meantime, the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. The lifeblood of commerce must flow, unimpeded, through such chokepoints as the Straits of Hormuz, the Straits of Malacca, the Bosporus, Dardanelles, the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, to name a few. Legitimate cargoes of crude, raw chemicals, manufactured goods or refined products rub shoulders with warships from potentially belligerent nations, pirate mother ships eyeing their goods, illegal bunkering vessels, and other unsavory characters on the high seas. It almost makes the days of “Pirates of the Caribbean” look romantic by comparison. But, speaking seriously, the world of maritime logistics is really fraught with potential issues. Weather delays like the recent spate of super typhoons, over-crowded ports, piracy, and an increasingly fragile geo-political environment that – left unchecked – could seriously impact commerce on heavily traveled sea lanes. Ever asked a company with maritime operations what they think of port or weather delays…or both? Be prepared for some rather salty words! Any delay represents a huge hit to the bottom line – it’s not pretty.

It’s typical for companies to operate hundreds of vessels, most owned by other entities. So how does the organization safeguard its assets when those assets are in the control of someone else and out on open water? Historically they relied on information that was transmitted from the ship’s bridge and captain. This information could be incomplete, inaccurate, or just plain late. Not to put too fine a point on it, sometimes cargoes – like crude or refined product – are just too valuable for otherwise good captains or crews to resist. Illegal bunkering is a problem on the high seas and sometimes a company’s load from the oil fields ends up being a little light on the scales when it reaches its destination. After all, a typical VLCC [Very Large Crude Carrier] can lug over USD $250 million worth of crude – just a fraction of that – 1% – can make a millionaire with one night’s work on some dark stretch of the Andaman Sea.

What is required is a method to keep honest captains…honest. Also, if you’re a company moving billions of dollars in assets in hundreds of ships around the world’s sea lanes – perhaps you would like to be able to monitor those assets, your assets, in real-time.

With the advent of big data analytics, command and control centers now have the ability to exploit the information transmitted by a ship’s computer and other external data sources (weather data, social media, proprietary historical data, live tracking data, and more). A robust data analytics engine sifts through the stream of information that is transmitted from the ship and identifies potential issues before they become a problem. The shipper can use this predictive information to make informed decisions to protect the assets in real time. If the captain’s AIS transponder “goes dark,” the shipper knows it immediately. A suspicious lightering vessel nudges up to your company’s big VLCC and both slow down to bunkering speed…you’ll know it and get an alert. This kind of information gives companies that must deal with the dynamic risk of maritime logistics chains – the ability to “virtually” keep a sharp eye on their investment.

Ship captains benefit, too. When traffic starts to stack up in a port of call because of malfunctioning equipment, a spill, an accident, a strike – applications that, for lack of a better description, put two and two together very quickly [intelligent analysis] will notify the shipper and captain well in advance of arrival, provide alternative ports to which the Captain can divert, or provide other time sensitive information.

Harnessing data to intelligent algorithms provides solutions to some of industry’s toughest problems and can be a valuable asset to marine logistics providers.