Standardisation is one of the topics popping up regularly in discussions on the digital development of maritime industry. Standards and standardisation are often said to be the crucial driving force which will eventually enable the so-called digital transformation in the shipping sector. Among many other things, standardisation is believed to help harmonise processes, provide better transparency, and facilitate integration. All these factors are important for a wide scale adoption of new digital technologies and solutions. It is therefore no wonder that the need for standards and standardisation are high on the list of many digitalisation evangelists and maritime experts.

What we talk about when we talk about standardisation

The British standards institute has defined a standard as “[…] an agreed way of doing something. It could be about making a product, managing a process, delivering a service or supplying materials – standards can cover a huge range of activities undertaken by organizations and used by their customers. Standards are the distilled wisdom of people with expertise in their subject matter and who know the needs of the organisations they represent – people such as manufacturers, sellers, buyers, customers, trade associations, users or regulators.” According to this definition, it could be argued that the purpose of a standard is to give people a shared framework for consensus on what to expect from a product, service or process.

In the context of maritime industry and digitalisation, standardisation – or the lack of it – is usually discussed in terms of the compatibility and interoperability of different sensors, software and various operating systems, all of which affects the overall usability and efficiency of such solutions. As a process by which specifications are set, standardisation helps to maximise interoperability and ensure that systems and devices are able to connect and work with each other. In maritime industry, standardisation influences the ways data is collected, accessed and utilised, as well as the functioning of different processes on board of vessels, at shipyards and ports. It ensures that the different links or actors in logistics chains are able to reap increased benefits from smart, digital solutions which facilitate data sharing and enhance the ability of different actors to collaborate. In this way, standardisation increases efficiency.

Where are we now?

The challenges maritime industry is facing with digitalisation are not only due to lack of standardisation. However, insufficient standardisation seems to be one of the major issues currently hindering wider scale digital development. In ECOPRODIGI’s first report, which focuses on maritime industry processes in the Baltic Sea region, the lack of standardisation was identified as one the critical issues affecting digitalisation of maritime processes and explaining the relatively low level of eco-efficiency in the industry. According to the findings of the report, there is a general lack of standards for issues such as operational or logistics data capture as well as storage and performance monitoring in the industry. The openness of the industry, in terms of exchanging data, models and even algorithms, was seen as a very important development requiring standardisation alongside global and regional legislation. As the findings of the report indicate, data that is easily accessible can help to improve transparency and allow better optimisation of both commercial and technical operations. However, standardisation is needed to ensure that interoperability between interfaces and applications make retrieving data possible.

The future?

So what does the future for standardisation – and maritime digitalisation – look like? Nowadays, most shipping companies are aiming to take full advantage of digital solutions in order to transform their on-board processes as efficient as possible. Furthermore, the growing interest in utilising digitalisation for supply chain integration has also put port and shipyard development in focus.  Data sharing has become especially important because of the large numbers of actors involved in supply chains and the global movements of containers. In the global digital landscape, the different actors along the supply chains need to be ready to improve coordination and synchronisation by sharing information on which they bear a mutual dependency. Consequently, many maritime ecosystem actors are busy not only in collaborating to develop enabling technologies but also to define specifications and requirements for data exchange interfaces. Many initiatives are underway to foster information sharing empowered by data sharing platforms. Examples include efforts such as the European Maritime Single Window which aims to simplify, digitalise and harmonise reporting procedures for ships, and port community systems (PCS) which strive to support the administrative processes associated with port operations. Furthermore, at the IMO level developments for the implementation of e-navigation strategies are ongoing, as is other work on the harmonisation of formats and structures for digitally transmitted data.

Because the maritime industry ecosystem is so wide and varied, the development and implementation of standardisation initiatives takes time and effort. Nevertheless, as we have experienced in ECOPRODIGI, collaboration, however complicated and time consuming it may be, is often the best way to tackle complex issues. In our own activities, we have aimed to gather together stakeholders from both the private and public sector outside our project consortium to discuss the future of maritime digitalisation. Not surprisingly, standardisation and the need to push for the establishment of harmonised rules and procedures to unlock the full potential of this increasingly digital era have been raised as important topics in most of our workshops and events. This autumn, we will be publishing two digitalisation roadmaps which will also help to shed a light on the role of standardisation plays in the digital development of maritime industry.