Breaking the silos: How Stena Bulk spin off is helping shipping firms unravel data

Breaking the silos: How Stena Bulk spin off is helping shipping firms unravel data
Ali Riaz, CEO of OrbitMI

Aggregating data that are locked up in multiple systems is essential for effective vessel performance management. This is an objective worth pursuing, however it will require shipping companies to demand more from their vendors and for solution providers to collaborate, if vessel performance goals are to be met, says CEO of OrbitMI Ali Riaz. 

Speaking with Digital Ship in a recent interview, Riaz noted that the industry has reached a point where there are a multitude of highly advanced and capable systems continuously monitoring and assessing vessel performance, but a significant amount of the data generated are locked up in various systems, resulting in widespread silos slowing everything down. To use that data, teams must log in and out of several systems, cut-and-paste them into spreadsheets and perform some kind of ad hoc analysis.  By the time you get the insight you need, it may be too late.

That’s what Riaz refers to as “data latency.”  “For insights to have value, they must arrive on time.”

To help the industry get better and faster insights from data, Riaz founded New York-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) company OrbitMI. The technology was spun out of Swedish shipping firm Stena Bulk. Stena’s objective was to address the challenges resulting from having critical information stored in multiple systems.  Stena Bulk wanted a solution that would help drive operational efficiency, transparency with its customers and extract the intelligence hidden in data.

Perhaps most importantly, to avoid getting bogged down in expensive implementations that would take a long time to be available, Stena Bulk sought a flexible and adaptable solution that would increase agility and speed. The company looked to Voyage Management System (VMS) providers to help them become more data-driven. Ultimately, Stena Bulk concluded that it required an entirely new breed of technology, one that leveraged yet expanded beyond the core financial and contract management capabilities of the VMS.  So, Stena built Orbit themselves.

OrbitMI’s vessel performance management solution ‘Orbit’ aggregates information from multiple systems and uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to transform raw data into actionable insights in the form of dashboards, alerts and visualisations delivered to staff in real-time through desktop and smartphone.  The software provides a complete picture of vessel performance for faster decision-making. Shipping companies use Orbit to keep a close eye on vessel and fleet performance to optimise fuel consumption, improve revenue and delivery on sustainability goals. The system was built with a modular architecture, facilitating easy add-on of more systems, data and features, as and when a shipping company requires. This means that the system never becomes ‘out of date’ or needs replacing as it can be continuously upgraded and advanced.

OrbitMI offers five solutions: OMI: Maritime Intelligence & Analytics; Comply: Sustainability & IMO Compliance; Sentry: Vessel Tracking & Notifications; ChartR: Chartering as well as Orbit, the complete Vessel Performance suite.  It also offers Reporter: Noon Reporting application, Orbit AI Routing and several data-as-a-service products.

OrbitMI plans to continue expanding its list of solutions and applications with its partners and clients.

Simplifying data management

For shipping companies today, data management is far from simple due to the time it takes to aggregate data, analyse data, and make decisions based on the data. “While all of this is happening and you’re waiting for your data to give you an answer, the world has continued to move and millions of transactions have taken place. You either have to get lucky or get faster at making decisions,” Riaz noted.

The CEO believes that while there are very good systems in place to collect and analyse data, decisions are still being made too late because of the silos that exists. “Data management becomes complicated when you have data locked up in multiple systems and shipping companies lose out on improving their bottom line because of this,” Riaz explained.

Orbit aims to overcome this challenge by automatically aggregating high frequency and high quantity data and presenting it in real-time, enabling the end user to make decisions based on the very latest information available.

Today’s generation are also “data-reliant and are okay with not knowing the answer in advance. The younger generation coming into the industry are happy to make decisions in real-time, based on the information that is specific to a particular situation,” Riaz explained. This means that there is increasing demand for real-time data that is simple to manage and even easier to use for decision making.”

Empathetic innovation 

Riaz is a big believer that shipping firms should seek empathetic vendors, solution providers that appreciates the challenges a company is facing and offers a tool that will make life easier for them.

“It’s so important to have a technology that is easy to learn and intuitive so that it does not disrupt the way a shipping company works, it only makes working easier and more efficient,” he noted.

He too often sees companies spending millions of dollars on a new system, only to find that few people use it because it is not intuitive to them, or it has not been designed to meet the way that they already work or think.

To avoid this issue, Orbit was designed with end users to ensure that it mirrored the way people were already working. The aim was to take the highest skillset in technology and combine this with the industry skillset to develop a solution that would meet real challenges real people were facing.

“When Stena started with Orbit, it took its experts from each area of the company and coupled them up with technology experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to innovate and support their digital transformation, without causing disruption to everyday operations,” Riaz explained.

“When solutions are built with empathy for the user, and that’s the number one strategy that we had with Orbit, the user will very quickly adopt it and begin asking what more they can do with the system. They will demand more from it and that’s when you have real engagement and you can really get that extra ROI, because people are pushing the system to do more.”

An empathetic approach is also necessary to help shipping companies become data-driven without feeling overwhelmed. “Shipping companies are faced with many systems that are needed to get the data, most of which have large upfront costs. Then there are years of development, customisation, testing, etc, and this all becomes very expensive and very time consuming and by the time you have the system you want to do the job, the world has changed again, and you’ll have to upgrade the system as soon as you are ready to roll it out.”

Operations manager of Furetank Chartering, Johan Kristensson, noted recently that one of the company’s main concerns with rolling out new software solutions was that it was wary of spending significant time trialling solutions for them to not be right. “Our business is fast-paced and we are unable to pause daily operations to adopt any solution,” Kristensson noted. After a pilot using Orbit on three vessels Furetank significantly increased control over bunker consumption and increased productivity due to improved planning and coordination of all commercial activities.

“The value we realised during the pilot made it easy for us to extend our use of Orbit to the entire fleet,” said Kristensson. “Most of our voyages are one or two days which require agile decision making and real-time analysis to gain efficiencies.”

Orbit can be trialled on any ship with no upfront costs. Thanks to it being a cloud-based SaaS system, immediate access via a simple login is possible. No lengthy installation process or trials are required, which can be a deterrent for some companies, Riaz noted.

“The fact that Orbit requires no software installation made it easy to test with our commercial teams. Ultimately, we will accelerate our time to value,” Kristensson added.

Demanding more from vendors 

A last but critical point Riaz noted is that it is vital for shipping companies to demand more from their solution providers.

“A shipowner deciding on a technology needs to ask the vendor how strong their capability is for collaborating with other vendors,” he said.

“Vendors have to appreciate that they are part of an ecosystem. They must collaborate inside this ecosystem to ensure they serve the customer as best they can. Most importantly, vendors must be able to demonstrate that collaborative capabilities are important to them.”

Riaz said that shipping companies should proceed with caution if they find a solution provider that is unable or unwilling to collaborate with other providers. “Those that are not making adoption for the end user as simple as possible means that they either have very old architecture, or because they think that they are the only piece of the mosaic.”

Shipping companies must demand that vendors deliver solutions that are easy to use. “As a solution provider, you have to make your systems easy to engage with. Provide documentation, training, short videos to demystify and make it easy for everyone, including the non-technical people to engage with the systems.

“A vendor also has to be confident in letting the user pay only after they have demonstrated the value of their technology and it is providing results.

“Ask your technology vendors where they are going with their technology. If they can tell you their plans and how they are going to connect with other companies, that’s great. Tomorrow’s needs are going to require more innovation, so understanding a company’s roadmap is really important.

“These are great times to revisit the technology landscape and reassess risks and rewards. Much has changed in the last decade.  True SaaS providers such OrbitMI are designed to reduce your technology adoption risks and accelerate your ability to become a more data driven operation, all without upfront financial risks. Making significant progress in your digital journey may be a lot more doable and profitable than you imagine or experienced in the past,” Riaz concluded.