Artificial Intelligence and Automation Make Waves in Shipping

Many of the processes in the shipping industry have been in use for years, but new technologies could dramatically change how the industry operates, and the ways in which it moves goods around the globe.

Terri Coles, Contributor

January 6, 2018

5 Min Read
Container ships docked in Hamburg

September through December are the busiest cargo shipping months of the year thanks to the winter holiday season, and in 2017, that was even more true than usual. The demand for shipping space on container ships, and the pace of arrivals at commercial ports, can hit companies with time-consuming and expensive issues: shipment delays, required changes in shipping method from marine to air, scheduling problems for the unloading and reloading of containers, and freight theft. 

In a retail environment where Amazon and other large retailers offer quick shipping, for free, manufacturers and retailers now risk losing money -- and customers -- if deliveries are delayed. Increasingly, the commercial shipping firms that retailers and manufacturers rely on to get products from A to B are turning to new technologies like artificial intelligence and automation to analyze the huge amounts of data generating in shipping, with an eye toward streamlining the processes, anticipating potential delays, and saving money.

For an industry that has used some of the same systems for years, artificial intelligence and automation offer an opportunity for revolution. And there are shipping companies that are dreaming big--for example, Rolls Royce is working on an autonomous naval vessel in partnership with Google, and Japanese shipping companies have banded together to develop self-navigating cargo ships.

But the ships themselves are far from the only application for  artificial intelligence and automation. The commercial shipping industry runs on a lot of data; every ship has a manifest, every container has an identification number, every box has a packing slip. AI advancements in gathering and analyzing that data could allow the shipping industry to plan further out and more accurately, particularly for busy times of the year that are known to be a challenge. The result could be not just greater efficiency for the industry, but significant cost savings. 

How Are Artificial Intelligence and Automation Changing the Shipping Industry?

The combining of technology--for example, leveraging artificial intelligence and automation, or AI and the Internet of Things--can play a significant role in the shipping industry moving forward.

“Businesses are having great success with artificial intelligence blending well with machine human interaction and logistics collaboration,” says Alexis Zanger, senior marketing manager at Aegis Software Corp.

“The retail shipping channel is also taking advantage of AI and logistics and are now able to offer faster delivery as a competitive option,” For example, the advantages provided by AI and logistics can be seen in retail shipping, Zanger says, where they have enabled cost cuts that allow for expedited delivery. This could be accelerated further if those retailers could, for example, use similar technology to get products sent by sea from their factories to their continental distribution centres. 

One potentially transformative area is the ability of AI to make more accurate predictions on estimated times of arrival for container ships, and to spot trends and risks in shipping lanes and ports, says Jim Hayden of Savi Technology. For example, machine learning technology could lead to analysis of historical shipping data--taking into account factors like weather patterns and busy or slow shipping seasons--and that analysis can refine existing processes like inefficiencies, errors, and duplications. And automating processes could identify signs of a coming problem or conflict before it has fully unfolded, then make the needed adjustments in order to prevent an issue in advance. 

Digitizing the core back-end processes will allow faster access to data, says Anthony Macciola, chief innovation officer at ABBYY. “There is still a significant number of staff assigned to manual data capture and exchange activities such as track and trace, gathering freight bill information, managing custom forms and securing proofs of deliveries,” Macciola said. “Using robotic process information relieves knowledge workers from mundane, repetitive tasks that are error prone so they can focus on more high-value task.”

Combining technology can unlock new potential in optimization and efficiency for the shipping industry, Macciola says.

“IoT technologies allow carriers to transmit vital stats, such as temperature, location, and power supply via satellite,” he said. “By having this information sent to the cloud and analyzed at a central office, carriers have real-time information as issues develop that also leads to increased safety for port staff.” This allows processes to be automated, helping to ensure that trucks and freight aren’t damaged en route.

In an increasingly globalized world, products are shipped to and from all points around the globe. There are increased risks associated with longer and more variable supply chains, Macciola says. “Incorporating AI within information management strategies will help address the risks associated with disrupted flight plans, a tsunami in Thailand that affects the port activity in California, or threats of a terrorist attack in Brussels that may halt all transportation,” he says. “Having access to global information and applying it locally is a critical asset to minimizing crises.”

And finally, the use of AI can provide valuable insight from the reams of data that are a natural byproduct in the shipping industry. “Using analytics to better understand customers’ challenges will enable business processes to transform that data to anticipate future needs expands the value to customers,” Macciola says. 

How Will Jobs Be Affected?

The use of artificial intelligence to predict arrival times and spot potentially disruptive trends won’t necessarily result in job elimination, Hayden says, because forecasting jobs don’t currently exist, but predictive analysis might help analysts and managers do their jobs more effectively.

But there is potential for jobs to be affected, Macciola says. For example, invoice processors, shipping clerks, and traffic coordinators may find their roles increasingly done via automation. As with other repetitive data-entry jobs in different industries, over time these positions will be eliminated via automation.

“AI will address challenges with manual data entry, driver shortages, proliferation of data from Internet-of-Things devices, warehouse and on-truck capture devices that interface into legacy systems,” Macciola says. “It will also level the playing field, or even give a competitive edge, against new market entrants by enabling driver matching, driverless autonomous or semi-autonomous freight trucking, real-time asset maintenance tracking, capacity load sharing and instant payment.“

And just as auto manufacturers and tech companies are working on having driverless cars on roads sooner rather than later, companies are preparing to bring artificial intelligence to the shipping industry in a matter of years. Rolls-Royce is aiming to have remote-controlled cargo ships in operation by 2020. And Japanese shipping companies hope to have their “smart ships” on the high seas by 2025.

About the Author(s)

Terri Coles


Terri Coles is a freelance reporter based in St. John's, Newfoundland. She has worked for more than 15 years in digital media and communications, with experience in writing, editing, reporting, interviewing, content writing, copywriting, media relations, and social media. In addition to covering artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, and other topics for IT Pro Today, she writes about health, politics, policy, and trends for several different publications.

Sign up for the ITPro Today newsletter
Stay on top of the IT universe with commentary, news analysis, how-to's, and tips delivered to your inbox daily.

You May Also Like