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Digital Disruption Will Cause Waves in Container Shipping

The Digital Age–new technologies, big data and the Internet of Things–will help reinvent the container shipping industry in coming decades.

A new study from McKinsey, “Container Shipping: The Next 50 Years,” recommends that shipping companies should invest in digital technologies to differentiate their products, disintermediation of value chains, improve customer service, raise productivity and cut costs.

“The risk is that tech giants and digital disruptors will capture most of the value from customer relationships by moving faster than incumbents,” the study said.

Over the next half century, advances in the use of data and analytics will bring significant changes in productivity. McKinsey said shipping companies could heed the example of today’s state-of-the-art aircraft that generate up to a terabyte of data per flight.

[Read more about digital impact on textiles: Kornit Helps Drive Digital Printing Sea Change]

Coupled with the introduction of more sensors, the better usage of the data that ships and containers generate would allow enhancements such as optimizing voyages in real time by taking into account weather, currents, traffic and other external factors, smarter stowage and terminal operations, and predictive maintenance.

Data could also improve the coordination of arrivals at port—a major benefit, since 48 percent of container ships arrive more than 12 hours behind schedule, wasting the carriers’ fuel and underutilizing the terminal operators’ labor and quay space, the study noted.

Data can create additional value for customers, as well.

“Full transparency on shipments, from one end of the value chain to the other, would be an enormous boon to carriers, forwarders and shippers alike, giving them access to real-time information and enabling them to predict a container’s availability [and] arrival times,” McKinsey said.

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Some ports, such as Antwerp, Hamburg and Singapore, are already starting to share information in real time across data ecosystems, which could eventually extend throughout the whole industry. That would create a truly integrated end-to-end flow of containers and therefore make the industry more productive by reducing handovers, waiting times and unnecessary handling.

“A data-enabled shipping industry could also support its customers’ supply chains in important ways, but that will require a truly new order of performance and efficiency,” the study said. “The real-time visibility of all container movements, reliable forecasts and integrated flow management will pave the way for flexible, dynamic supply chains that all but eliminate waiting times and inefficiencies.”

It will also allow smart logistics providers to differentiate themselves and earn premiums.

McKinsey noted that one technology in particular—3-D printing—could have a novel impact on trade volumes, but not by precipitating a mass localization of production. With this technology, objects are made by adding layers, thus minimizing waste, instead of by milling down materials.

The Airbus subsidiary AP Works, for example, recently used 3-D printing to manufacture an electric motorcycle 30 percent lighter than a traditionally made one, mostly by using less material.

“As 3-D printing gets cheaper, faster and more compatible with metals, ceramics and other materials, its increasing use may affect trade in raw materials for manufacturing,” McKinsey added.