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How will AI transform the work of shipping planners?

May 14, 2020
Arto Viitanen

Anyone that’s peeked into the world of enterprise bulk cargo planning knows how old-school and high friction it is. It is an incredibly complex system, and turns out it has been one of the hardest to digitalise. The tools currently in use are to some extent digital of course, but they are siloed and fragmented, and information flow through the value chain isn't exactly smooth. Some of the tools in use are so old that the main concepts and paradigms are from the pre-internet era. Certainly many of them are older than the term user experience, which was first used by Donald Norman in 1995. 

We at Seaber believe that this is about to change, and the change has already started. Just looking at some of the megatrends we have today, especially advances in machine learning and AI, as well as the rise of environmental awareness, we see the soil being very fertile for a new, much more efficient sea transportation macro-system. 

You might or might not know that more than 80% of deadweight tonnes of all registered ships in the world are used to carry either dry or liquid bulk cargo. 13% are container ships and less than 1% are for passengers. This is a lot of ships, fuel and emissions. Just imagine what could be achieved by replacing messy spreadsheet based legacy systems and phone, scanner and email fueled processes with a more modern system where information flows with low or no friction and AI algorithms automatically analyse, build and compare scenarios. The impact on efficiency, profitability and the environment could be huge for the sea transportation system as a whole.

With a semi-automated planning process and reduced manual punching of data, the workload for planners would be drastically reduced. So what happens with all that free time?

I believe this time can be filled by something extremely meaningful, by those same planners: data analysis and the resulting process improvement projects. Planners and operators are the people with the most detailed understanding of how cargo is transported on a ship from one port to another. They are problem solvers by nature and a great resource to tap when digesting insights from shipping related data. Their contribution would hone efficiencies yet further and the value created would not only be limited to shipping, but supply chain efficiency and predictability in general. This would include improved inventory management with vast cost saving potential.

What would a planner do if you gave them some free time, an extended planning horizon plus a dashboard with the ability to query, analyse and detect patterns or irregularities in any ship, port and cargo-related costs or schedules? I think we could expect to see unprecedented leaps in total system-level efficiency. 

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