The ship that never calls at port

Drones, 3D printing, robots and automation – what do these new technologies mean for the future of freight? 

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A giant container ship looms into view on the horizon. From a distance it looks like one of the many thousands of container vessels plying the world’s oceans at any given moment, but there is a difference – this ship has no captain and no crew. And it never calls at port.

The ship that never calls at port Play

The ship stops far out at sea. Suddenly a flock of drones whizzes overhead to the vessel, latching on to the containers and depositing them safely onshore. The containers are made of a super-strength, lightweight plastic that was 3D-printed at the port to fit the cargo dimensions.

The drones return to the vessel, this time bearing new cargo, which is slotted into place by an army of on-board robots, before the unmanned ship continues on its journey.

It may sound like science fiction, but all these technologies – from drones to 3D printing, to automation and robotics are available today – the big question is how will they impact on the future of shipping?

Put your ‘yes hat’ on

This was put to participants at a recent Maersk Line workshop supported Maersk Maritime Technology (MMT) on the future of cargo carrying - the first in a series of ‘innovation campaigns’ designed to radically shake up the way innovation is tackled in Maersk.

It doesn’t matter whether the container ship of tomorrow has the same characteristics as the one we know today, as long as it’s more efficient.
Michael Heimann, Head of Maersk Line New Building

Fostering an innovative culture

  • New communities are springing up across Maersk to foster a culture of innovation.
  • The Ideation Community meets to share best practice on how to generate new ideas, refine and mature them. The community consists of around 20 people and workshops have been held on best practices for running digital idea campaigns, physical prototyping and graphic facilitation and illustrations.
  • The Innovation Symposia is dedicated to sharing knowledge and inspiration amongst innovation practitioners in the Group.
  • The Technical Innovation Board is a cross-business unit forum on future technologies. Its role is to improve Maersk’s ability to develop and access technology that has a longer term outlook or is relevant for multiple business units. The board will hold the first Maersk Technology Conference in 2017.

A diverse group of ship builders, naval architects and innovators from outside the marine industry – including a rocket builder - were urged to “put on their ‘yes hats’” and consider how the future might look for container shipping.

To do so is a new approach for Maersk Line, which has always innovated to improve efficiency and cut cost. But Paolo Tonon,Head of Maersk Maritime Technology says the speed of technological developments in the world today means it is time for a new approach: “Unconventional thinking is required if we are to make a difference in the commoditised market we are in.”

“We are here because we want to do something new, something different. To innovate in such a way that we create new opportunities, a new market, new space and a new type of service. We have hundreds of years of experience in ship design and this is a fantastic asset. But it can also be a constraint. So we need to think differently, challenge the accepted ways of doing things and not think of it as being impossible.”

Rocketman

The container industry is due a shake-up. Since the first container vessels were built back in the 1950’s there has been no real change in the way cargo is carried. Even the way the containers are secured is done in the same way using twist locks and lashing ropes – a difficult and hazardous job carried out by an army of people. Just imagine if containers could be secured and released at the touch of a button?

Peter Madsen, an “inventrapreneur” from Denmark who is building his own space ship attended the workshop and was left in no doubt that radical change is on its way.

“History tells us things will change, and they do all the time. I believe we will see an innovation in shipping comparable to the revolution of going from sail to steam,” he says. Madsen sees the future of shipping as “unmanned, radio-controlled ships that are largely autonomous.”

Whether or not this becomes a reality remains to be seen, but Maersk Line is considering all possibilities. Michael Heimann, Head of Maersk Line New Building believes the future could be far closer than we think. 

“It doesn’t matter whether the container ship of tomorrow has the same characteristics as the one we know today, as long as it’s more efficient. In extreme thinking it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a ship – we just need to find the very best way to transport our containers and our cargo in the future.”

Could the future of the shipping industry involve autonomous  ships  without a captain or crew , and drones to deliver containers to shore?
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Peter Madsen, an “inventrapreneur” from Denmark who is building his own space ship: “History tells us things will change, and they do all the time. I believe we will see an innovation in shipping comparable to the revolution of going from sail to steam.”

130 ideas to change the shape of drilling

It is 2021, the oil price is USD 40, and all of Maersk Drilling’s rigs are on profitable long-term contracts. What innovations are behind Maersk Drilling’s success?

This was the challenge put to Maersk Drilling employees as part of an ‘Idea Campaign’ designed to spark innovation inside the company. The ideas came flooding in – 130 were received in just two weeks – half of them from offshore employees.

Ideas included the use of Virtual Reality headsets for training purposes and to control equipment on the rigs from onshore; and 3D printing hubs to print out spare parts for the rigs.

Many ideas involved automation. “It is expected that one day drilling operations will be fully automated,” says Jeanne Mia Lønstrup, Innovation Manager at Maersk Drilling. “But right now nobody knows when – it could be five, 10 or 20 years from now. The technologies are there, but there are still a lot of challenges to overcome.”

If some ideas appear somewhat far-fetched, Lønstrup says that is not surprising. “Our brains work in a linear way, but digital technologies are exponential, so you are embarking on a journey where you can’t see the outcome. Instead of looking at what it can do now, you need to look at what you want it to do.

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