Cover Story: Shipping is an evolving opportunity

Being even more customer-focused, managing costs in these tough times and looking to innovation are key components of DNV GL’s strategy for growth over the next few years. But as Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, CEO of its Maritime business, predicted: Don’t worry, the shipping industry of the future will still need its traditional seafarers but we do need to see more women leading global shipping!

This whole issue of the gender imbalance in global shipping has been going on for many years now, with women-only trade associations even set up to champion this very point. So, it was not that surprising to hear it being raised as a concern, albeit at the end of a very interesting interview. What was noteworthy, was the passion behind the sentiment and the acknowledgement by DNV GL’s Maritime CEO, and the next Chairman of the International Association of Classification Societies (IACS), that even an organisation as large as his, possibly needed to do better when it came to attracting women, as leaders, into its ranks.

“Shipping could certainly benefit from being more diverse and one example is that we need more female leaders,” he said. “Especially in Europe, because there is a lot of talent here and shipping is missing out.”

How right he is, but he was also quick to acknowledge that when it came to female leaders, other industries are stealing a march on shipping.

“In DNV GL, for example, we employ more women in oil and gas than we do in maritime, but we have some strategic ambitions to improve this percentage. There are so many talented women already working in the maritime sector so there is no reason why classification societies like ours, or ship owners or ship managers for that matter, should not tap into that potential.”

Recruiting more women into class, at a time when the societies are not recruiting to a large extent because of the drop back in newbuilding orders at the world’s shipyards, will be an interesting circle to square. But as Mr Ørbeck-Nilssen pointed out, the need for more efficiencies in shipping will see greater diversification, such as with fuel technology, and any change and there will be change, will be gradual and evolutionary. Not revolutionary.

“The question is, how can the different classification societies position themselves when it comes to digitalisation. I would be surprised if IACS members are not discussing this issue at their boardroom tables as we speak.

“If you look ahead to 2025 and 2030, I see more ‘evolution of things’ rather than a revolution, meaning that while there is constant talk about disruptive technologies, and new players entering the scene, shipping remains different to other industries that may already have been disrupted.”

When it comes to shipping, he opined, you need the right domain knowledge.

“Yes, shipping companies, ship operators, ship yards and other stakeholders will all need to take much more notice of the big data revolution by hiring more data-focused people and understanding that IT will play more of a central role in operations going forward, but at the same time, a need for that expert domain knowledge, i.e. that shipping knowledge, will persist.

“Naturally there will be some disruption taking place in some parts of the industry, but by and large you will see many of the bigger players able to transform and gradually adapt to the opportunities that come with digitalisation. And it is not all about digitalisation; is also about the continued influx of stricter regulations in particular on the environmental side, which will put more of a demanding framework on shipping,” he said.

Looking to the issue of technical trends, Mr Ørbeck-Nilssen remains convinced that over the next 10 to 15 years “we’ll see a big variety on diversification on the fuel side for deep sea shipping”.

LNG, he says, will most likely establish itself as a more prominent solution for deep-sea shipping but “when you talk about short sea shipping then propulsion will be highly electrical; the development of battery technology will really accelerate during this period and will be developed not only by the maritime industry but also by other industries such as the automotive sector. So, there will be some significant changes in the way ships of the future are powered  and fuelled.

“Just finally on the issue of digitalisation, there really is a lot of talk about autonomous shipping and the use of unmanned vessels, but taking it from a technology perspective, it is totally feasible to assume that within 10 to 15 years we could see autonomous shipping but only for the more niche applications – such as shorter ferry operations where a vessel is operating within 12-mile zones and subject to one flag state jurisdiction.

“In the wider context we will properly see quite a lot of advances in maritime domain awareness (a term defined by the International Maritime Organization as the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment) – having systems helping the crew onboard to make the right decisions. In the context of international shipping, it will be some time before we have all legislation governing automated shipping passed through the IMO, but we will see some interesting developments. But there is still room for the crew onboard,” he said.

So, when it comes to the seafarer of tomorrow, will he still be wielding a spanner and a screwdriver or will he be the IT savvy techno kid we all talk about?

“Maybe I’m totally wrong but I still think there will be a need for the more traditional seafarer albeit with some level of dependency on ship-to-shore connectivity to an expert ashore. This will increase as the onboard systems become more sophisticated and complex and there will be a further need to have this support for whatever task is being carried out on board; but I am convinced we will still need the seafarer,” he said.

Any shift towards greater autonomy in shipping will impact on the newbuilding expertise of the shipyards. What will be interesting will be whether the build-up in digitalisation and innovation will favour some yards over others in the future?

Mr Ørbeck-Nilssen again: “Yes, I think this is quite an interesting development because what we have seen is that European shipping really has had a resurrection over recent years – a lot to do with the offshore sector and latterly the cruise sector – where some of the more successful yards have taken onboard the use of advanced robots for carrying out welding operations and cutting steel etc. This development has taken away some of the disadvantages that European shipbuilding had against its Asian counterparts in terms of cost. The more European yards progress on this, the better position they will be in to do some more advanced shipbuilding than yards in countries with a more higher labour element. So, automation and the use of robotics, will do away with the need for a huge workforce and make the yards more competitive which will be interesting to see,” he said.

The DNV GL Maritime CEO left his biggest prediction for the end: “If we are talking about the maritime industry at large then for sure we will see more mergers and consolidations; almost every day you are reading about new joint ventures or mergers or acquisitions taking place, and that trend is definitely continuing.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we also saw that involving some of the classification societies, who could also see the benefit of a slightly larger scale of operation and maybe a stronger presence in different segments as we have experienced after the merger of DNV and GL. This is pure speculation from my part, but for the industry the trend is naturally very strong in that direction at the moment.”