Increases in world trade flows mean that more and more ships are sailing on the high seas. As a result, ships are increasingly being monitored and controlled and the crew needs to send a growing number of reports and other data to various shore authorities. Another big crossborder challenge, this time on the shore, is how to move goods as efficiently as possible to generate savings for businesses.
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These are just two of many examples where computerised systems could play a role in helping humans take decisions by processing large amounts of complex data.
This is exactly what Flagship, an EU-funded consortium of more than 40 European maritime organisations, is looking into. By drawing on expertise from different partners, which include organisations specialised in regulations, IT and safety as well as port authorities and shipping companies and universities from all over Europe, the consortium has been able to come up with a number of crossborder innovations.
One example of such crossborder innovation, developed by researchers that could generate considerable savings is an automated computerised system to help ship operators fill in forms that they need to send to port authorities.
"There are currently hundreds of thousands of shipping regulations including class, territorial and local variations that ship owners and operators must comply with. Being caught in breach of these regulations can cost a ship owner tens of thousands of pounds in fines," explains Luke Speller, Senior Research Scientist at BMT Group Ltd, the lead partner in the British-French-Greek project.
The new system could significantly reduce the regulatory compliance and administrative burden ship owners and operators currently face. If every European ship used automated form filling, this could lead to a total time cost saving in the region of €8.94 million per year.
"The system automatically warns the captain when they come to a certain area and what rules they have to comply with. It also prepares messages that ships have to send to ports. This enhances safety and regulatory compliance," said Herman de Meester, the coordinator of the Flagship project.
The European approach also yielded dividends in the case of a separate project to improve the real-time scheduling of container movements in ports. The project brought together the expertise of the UK logistics planning software company MJC² Limited with the Port of Valencia in Spain, where a new computerised system was trialled. Two depots, Spanish Depot Service and Trans-Base Soler, which operate trucks and container services in the Valencia area, also took part as did the China Shipping (Spain) Agency, which operates ships.
In a nutshell, the beauty of the real-time scheduling system for containers is that it can help companies ensure that trucks do not drive to or around ports empty.
Before the trial, the Port of Valencia had a manual decision-making process and no automated system at all. The logistics exercise is a complex one that involves getting hold of trucks, loading them with containers full of imported goods, delivering them and then trying to ensure that the trucks return with full container loads of goods for export. It is also about locating the right truck for a particular load and ensuring the staggered arrival of trucks to avoid congestion at the port.
"A person doing it has a limited number of options in their head. The advantage of a machine is that a computerised system will look at millions of options and pick the best," said Julian Stephens, Technology Development Manager at MJC² Limited. "The system has shown that it is capable of saving 10-20% of transport costs through improved planning and faster response times." Making savings is of course high up the list of priorities for European companies, but there is interest in the system from further afield too. In this sense, it is well worth noting that a Chinese shipping company has bought the system and made considerable savings as a result.
But it is not just companies that can benefit in terms of savings. The wider public can benefit too because the system will mean lower emissions of CO2. "The direct public benefit is a reduction in congestion with 10% less truck movements now for the same volume of goods and a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions," said Julian Stephens.