From 'speed police' to equal partner

Since 2012, Maersk Line has saved 400,000 tonnes of fuel – worth USD 250 million – delivered across operations. One major contributor is the Global Vessel Performance Centre, which armed with data and good advice, began cooperating with crews on vessels to optimise their journeys. New technology will enable further savings, but people and cooperation remain the key to success.

Speed police
“Whenever we think that we have exhausted the possibilities, we always find a way to take out another half percent of our fuel bill. Fully digitised vessels will probably be one step, and after that we’ll probably find another. That’s how it’s been so far,” says Stephan Martinussen, the Head of Maersk Line’s Global Vessel Performance Centre in Mumbai, seen here in the situation room.

The air is cool in the air-conditioned office in Mumbai, which houses the situation room of Maersk Line’s Global Vessel Performance Centre (GVPC). Charts and maps are displayed on large screens on the wall. Three employees, eyes fixed on a chart displayed on one of the screens, quietly discuss the numbers. Just outside the glass walls, other employees are on the phone, giving advice to crews on vessels.

“If we take a look at the Bay of Biscay for example, we can see some bad weather coming up with 9-10 metre waves,” says Stephan Martinussen, while pointing to one of the other screens.

“When we see something like this, we reach out to the vessels that are in the area so that they can avoid entering the storm. We do so for the safety of the vessel and its cargo as well as to ensuring that the voyage is as economical as possible.”

It all adds up

Martinussen is the Head of the GVPC. Together with a team of 37, his job is to engage with crews on the roughly 600 vessels  operating in Maersk Line’s fleet with a view to optimising their voyages from a fuel efficiency perspective and, ultimately, to remove all excess consumption. Avoiding bad weather is a big part of this. Another is the adjustment of vessel speed by as little as half a knot. It all adds up – especially when best practice is shared and implemented across the entire fleet.

Since the centre opened in 2012, Maersk Line’s fuel consumption has been reduced by a staggering 400,000 tonnes – corresponding to savings worth USD 250 million. Previously, operations at sea were managed by the crews alone, which in some cases led to a difference in the performance of vessels of the same class.

“I think we all had to get used to being contacted by the GVPC when it started. I had a feeling that there were potential savings to be made so I didn’t mind, but I know that some colleagues were really angry about the initiative to begin with,” says Roeland IJssel de Schepper, who has been a captain since 2004.

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"Over the last five years, we have saved more than 250 million US dollars through fuel efficiency." 02:09

Nevertheless, the GVPC’s focus has made an impact. One example is maintaining constant power, which compared to constant speed, gives a lot of savings. Especially with bad weather and headwinds, it is better to reduce speed a little and speed up afterwards. Another example is the season of the Vietnam Current. Changing the route, going from China to Singapore, and sailing closer to Vietnam also saves a lot of fuel.

“But things change and there’s no doubt that it gives a lot of savings, so I think most of us have become used to it. Also, communication between the vessels has become more open, and they have become better at sharing their knowledge. I think we have become much more aware of what we’re doing on the vessels,” de Schepper says.

Between peers

“The crews on our vessels are, of course, experienced and know what they are doing. Nevertheless, we managed to visualise some pain points, which made it a lot easier for us onshore to address the right issues and have the right dialogue with people on the vessels,” Martinussen recalls, emphasising the fact that credit for the fuel savings goes to everybody involved across onshore departments and especially the crews.

“In the beginning, our calls weren’t always welcome and some crews might have seen us as speed police. But we have all moved on, and in most cases we are now seen as an equal partner in optimising fuel consumption.”

The hiring of seafarers is one of the elements that has made the centre successful. This has ensured that the talks between vessels and the GVPC are ones between peers – a mutual understanding – something that will be a key factor in uncovering even more savings.

When ships become fully digitised and connected in coming years, the GVPC will be able to see what is happing on board in real time – thereby reducing the lead time necessary to address problems to zero. Equally important, vessel crews will all have the same information at their fingertips, enabling them to act more proactively and allowing the GVPC to become an even greater sparring partner.

Advanced analytics will furthermore provide additional support in the form of completely new insights from the mindboggling amount of data that is being collected from the vessels on a continuous basis. However, Maersk Line is not the only shipping line taking such steps, and Martinussen expects that it will be something else that will set Maersk apart:

“The differentiating factor will be the people and the way we work. That can set us apart. Standardised processes, evaluating performance data in the right way and really enabling good decision making – this is key to keep cutting the fuel bill,” he says.

“Whenever we think that we have exhausted the possibilities, we always find a way to take out another half percent of our fuel bill. Fully digitised vessels will probably be one step, and after that we’ll probably find another. That’s how it’s been so far.”