by Richard Westgarth, head of campaigns at BMT
Technology is transforming every industry – but we need to take careful steps to ensure those changes are positive ones.
The fourth Industrial Revolution is well underway, changing the character and direction of industries across the board. Manufacturing, transport, healthcare and other sectors are undergoing transformations that stand to dramatically improve efficiency, accuracy and, ultimately, end-user satisfaction.
But while certain areas, such as vehicle technology, have taken the lion’s share of the attention, there are dramatic changes taking place further from the public eye. Many of the boldest innovations – autonomous operating systems, AI, the internet of things – can be integrated into a vast number of industry processes, whether in vehicles, factory machines, or even maritime infrastructure.
“The changing world we live in is starting to lead us to look much more broadly across the sectors we operate in,” says Richard Westgarth, Head of Campaigns at BMT, a multidisciplinary engineering, science and technology consultancy group specialising in the maritime, security, environment and critical infrastructure industries. “We’re moving away from the traditional silos industries operate in to look at how we can bring a more holistic vision to multiple sectors.”
Shipping, for example, is one element in an expansive value chain that comprises many different, yet interlocking, parts: ports, harbours, goods distribution centres, vessel traffic services – the list goes on. With new data systems and the growth of connected technologies, these can interact to a greater degree than ever before, boosting the efficiency of maritime operations.
Yet there are, of course, the challenges that come with any form of disruption. How do personnel in these sectors keep on top of rapid advancements? How can innovations be integrated in a way that doesn’t cause negative disruption – such as loss of jobs – further downstream?
“We have skills shortages, we see trade changing and we’ve seen the impact of the potential of Brexit starting to come through,” says Westgarth. “How we think about future skills, the ways we adopt technologies, how we ensure the demands of a greener shipping agenda are met – these are all questions we are investing considerable time and resources into answering.”
“With the growing demand for digital talent, industries will be looking for employees who clearly have that level of specialist skill and thought, and that entrepreneurial drive. So we have to know how to create a maritime sector attractive to that kind of talent, and that can keep hold of it and enable a person to work how he or she wants to work.”
The signs that the sector is entering its own Maritime 4.0 are numerous: the emergence of autonomous ships that can conduct geophysical surveys with minimum human assistance; “connected” ports and harbours; the growth of alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG), and more.
“We need to be able to match skills to emerging technology. It’s thought that around 50 per cent of employees will require additional skills within the next five to 10 years, and so there’s the challenge of continuously developing our employees as the technology changes. This puts a whole new emphasis on career-based training.”
The car industry illustrates how disruptive these new technologies are. The move towards a shared economy of pooled car rides and expanding taxi services is complicating demand for vehicles. The supply chain model is also changing: no longer focused on traditional combustion engines, the production line is increasingly dominated by electric components and integrated sensors.
Similar innovations are having far-reaching impacts in the maritime industry too, and BMT is looking at how to integrate developments such as autonomous vessels into new port and harbour technology, and the ways in which AI can assist with that. “We need to think hard about how the maritime sector can afford to make all these changes,” says Westgarth. “It’s a capital-intensive business – ships are expensive to build, and they are built to last a long time, meaning margins are often low.”
Given the extent of changes the industry is under pressure to implement – new physical infrastructure, new technologies, expanded trainings for personnel – there are significant concerns around whether businesses can make the transformation a financially secure one. Failure to adopt new technologies carries the risk of becoming obsolete, yet the process of transitioning is a risk in itself.
BMT sees a future in which businesses not only within sectors, but across sectors, appreciate the importance of collaboration. “No one company can have a complete set of skills and capabilities to take a system-wide view of the sector as a whole,” says Westgarth. “You have experts in shipping, experts in port and harbours, experts in data and analytics. But to deliver this as a connected system and to get all the necessary economic benefits, we need to work together to bridge these different silos and encourage cross-interest collaboration.”
Westgarth sees BMT channelling increasing time and effort into developing connected, autonomous systems over the coming years. While it already has considerable experience in autonomous shipping, he says, the focus will now widen to explore the digitalisation of ports and harbours. But, he cautions, technology is an enabler, not necessarily the answer.
“These technologies have immense potential, but we need to change the narrative between people and tech,” he concludes. “We need to push past the hype – that technology is a magic silver bullet and the deterministic technology-driven perspective – to a more nuanced, holistic and symbiotic view.
“That’s why we have this interest in building up the skills of people in the industry. We need to bring together the people element with the digital element of transformation, and this of course raises key questions: how do people develop the skills to interact with AI yet not be overly reliant on what the machine is telling you? How can we both trust, and yet be critical of, the information coming back to us? We want to find out how to create the right test environment.”
Ultimately, though, the success of any vision shouldn’t be reduced to whether or not individual areas are seeing improvement. Rather, there’s a higher mission being pursued. “Think about smart cities,” Westgarth says. “We’re introducing technology into cities but we need to think harder about the benefits, and whether it could disrupt communities in a negative way. It’s not about developments that better things only for the few. We need to improve the overall quality of life.”