Smart containers listen and talk

By outfitting its fleet of reefer containers with “smart” technology, Maersk Line is reducing risk in customer supply chains and saving itself millions of dollars in costs while representing the cutting edge technology and innovation in shipping.

Containers

Open for business

As Maersk Group rolls out more modern infrastructure around the world, the local employees who are taking on operations embody the Group’s belief in the long-term potential of these markets. Meet two Maersk Group employees who have returned to Mexico, a growing economy with bright prospects.

From his desk in Maersk Line’s Copenhagen headquarters, Musaddique Alatoor has a multi-billion dollar view. On his screen is the precise location and operational details of 270,000 refrigerated “reefer” containers, carrying anything from bananas to pharmaceuticals to sashimi-grade tuna.

The system enabling this is RCM, which stands for Remote Container Management. It’s simple technology – a modem, GPS, wireless SIM card and satellite link – deployed on a global scale, and it is changing the concept of supply chain visibility, and the costs and opportunities associated with providing it.

Technology to save millions
“If you think about a basic supply chain, it stretches across the world. It involves trucks, terminals, depots, an ocean carrier and time. There is no end-to-end visibility and very little control, which for refrigerated cargo is very risky,” says Alatoor, an RCM specialist in Maersk Line’s Equipment Management and Repair.

Whether it is frozen poultry, pineapples or bananas, perishable commodities are time sensitive and require precise temperature and atmospheric conditions. If the power goes off on the reefer or a malfunction occurs and it is not discovered quickly enough in the terminal, on the truck or ship, an entire container of goods can be spoiled.

As a result, Maersk Line spends thousands of hours and about USD 200 million every year on physical inspections of its containers before customers use them and continuous monitoring of their functionality during a journey. And since people make mistakes and accidents happen, Maersk Line also pays millions in claims to customers for damaged cargo – most of which is related to the power on the reefer being off for too long.

Connected: Shipping’s digital future
With RCM, all of that changes. Instead of counting on human eyes and hands to inspect and monitor reefers all over the world, the technology does it instead – removing much of these costs, along with many others including the danger associated with people walking among container stacks and handling electricity.

If the conditions inside the container change or the reefer malfunctions, an alarm instantly appears on the screens of the RCM teams on shore. In the same instant, the alarm, which describes the problem and the level of urgency, also goes to the closest local repair vendor. Automatic follow-ups are sent as needed until each alarm is resolved.

“Our reefer containers are transported about 900,000 times every year. With RCM we remove millions in operational cost and also a lot of the uncertainty that comes with the physical preparation, handling and monitoring of these containers every hour of every day for a supply chain journey that can last more than a month,” says Catja Rasmussen, Head of RCM for Maersk Line.

“This technology gives us total visibility into our operations, our suppliers’ performance and our customers’ supply chains, in real-time. That’s a powerful capability, particularly for sensitive perishable cargo. And no other shipping line has it.”

How does RCM work?

RCM

It starts with the hardware mounted on all 270,000 Maersk Line reefer containers. A GPS allows global tracking and a modem and SIM card enable the reefer’s atmospheric conditions and power status to be collected, stored and shared. A satellite transmitter mounted on 400 of Maersk Line’s vessels picks up the data streaming from the modem and sends it real-time to a satellite that beams it back to the RCM teams located around the globe.

Containers

'The sexiest job of the century'

A growing team of data scientists – in what the Harvard Business Review has called ”the sexiest job of the century” – is using Maersk Line’s abundance of data to chip away at key operational and commercial challenges, not to mention to explore ideas for new business models.

Tech’s next wave of hits
Technology and the data flow and capture it enables, whether it is “smart” containers or the development of a comprehensive e-platform for customers, is driving Maersk Line’s next phase of operational and commercial excellence.

“Our vessels, our containers, the cargo we carry, it is all being connected with technology,” says Robin Johnson, Maersk Line’s Chief Information Officer. “From achieving the next level of operational efficiency with our vessels, to how our customers buy our products and services, tech is going to enable it.”

Individual sensors on ships already provide valuable insight. One example is bunker consumption flow metres, approximately 2,000 of which will be installed on 270 Maersk Line vessels by the end of 2017. These metres measure fuel consumption and relay this data in real-time to the vessel bridge and to shore, enabling Maersk Line to continually optimise the fleet’s operational performance.

What if all these data sources on the different machinery and containers, could be linked to provide an overall picture? What could real-time data collection, not just for refrigerated containers, but for vessel operations like port stays do to improve vessel turnaround times, and ultimately entire supply chains? Hardware requirements and data transmission are challenges but Maersk Line is looking into it.

On the commercial side, the development of My.Maerskline.com into a comprehensive online shipping platform is well underway. The majority of customers say they want a predictable, self-service type process for handling their shipping needs. An online platform will also reduce the millions of phone calls and emails related to transaction support that Maersk Line handles, enabling it to increase the time it spends on developing business. The data collected will also provide a rich source of insight into customer behaviour.

Early progress with the My.Maerskline.com site indicates the potential. Today, 97% of customer bookings are received via the site; this is up from 60% just three years ago, but the end-to-end capability of this platform is still in the early stages. “A comprehensive e-platform is a very important development for our business, so we’re being deliberate about its build in order to get it right,” says Tom Sproat, Global Head of Customer Service.

The collection and analysis of the data the business produces across its global footprint are also increasingly important to Maersk Line. Here, a growing team of data scientists in the Advanced Analytics team are using mathematics and computer programming code to save Maersk Line millions by further optimising empty container flows, developing more accurate container supply and demand forecasts, and providing insight into customer behaviour and profitability.