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Container carriers stand to gain from automation software reducing costs and increasing profitability

Container shipping is at the forefront of the shipping industry, when it comes to technology utilisation and automation processes. Although some companies are still under utilizing the information technology department, it’s quite difficult to argue with the fact that a proper automation software has a lot to offer to container shipping, mainly towards reducing costs, increasing revenues and improving customer service. Although, today’s “talk of the town” is slow-steaming, eco-vessels and newly built ultra large container carriers, which all contribute to more efficient shipping and lower bunker costs, indeed automation software could very well be included in the above list, should a container carrier wish to remain competitive.
In an exclusive interview with Hellenic Shipping News Worldwide, Lars Fischer, Managing Director of Softship Data Processing Ltd, Singapore, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Softship AG, explains how a proper software can contribute to improving a container line’s service, by saving up to 2,300 hours, or 290 working days, through faster and more accurate exchanging of information, between the ship and the terminal. Softship AG is considered one of the leading provider of software solutions to the international liner shipping sector.

Across the board, the story in today’s container liner business is efficiency in all parts of the shipping business. How does Softship help companies towards achieving their goals?

Margins are extremely tight for all container operators and efficiencies are required to contain costs. Softship can assist ship operators in a number of ways. The central aim of our software is to automate admin-heavy processes such as container management, bookings and invoicing. Introducing intelligent software packages to these activities eliminates the need for multi-entry of the same information, it reduces errors, increases accuracy and, most importantly, greatly speeds up the process. It also frees up staff and allows them to focus on more customer facing activities.
As an example, a ULCV of 15,000 teu requires around 60,000 pieces of information to be exchanged between ship and terminal to govern the six standard moves for each box – these are gate out depot, gate in terminal, load terminal, discharge terminal, gate out terminal and gate in depot. However, if the pre-arrival notice, release order, booking confirmation, bill of lading anf invoice are considered, then a further 60,000 pieces of data need to be relayed for the export process and another 20,000 (notice of arrival and delivery order)for the import process. That is 140,000 transactions created around one ULCV voyage. If we can save just one minute per transaction then that would equate to around 2,300 hours or 290 working days saved.

What types of services does Softship provide?

Softship is a specialist provider of shipping software. Our software is tailored for liner shipping operators and liner agents. Liner shipping operators include container, break-bulk, project cargo and ro-ro operators.
Our software solutions are modular which means that a customer can take as many or as few modules as they require – they can easily add modules at a later time. This allows clients to introduce automation to the highest priority areas within their business. As their business evolves, further modules and enhanced automation can be added. Our modules are designed to share information so data can flow seamlessly across the company. This means that most information need only be input once. It also means that data can be gathered from many areas of the business to provide comprehensive reports and updates.
As well as providing this software, we also install and maintain it for our customers. We offer a full training service as well as a third-party hosting solution. Other services include IT consultancy and website development.

How do you ensure that your software stays always ahead of times and up to date with new developments?

We employ teams of software and IT experts at our locations around the globe. These people are fully up-to-date with recent and ongoing IT developments and remain conversant with the latest technology. This enables us to identify if a shift to a new technology would be beneficial for our customers.
We are very aware that new technologies bring added benefits and functionality and so we have mechanisms in place to ensure that our software is compliant with the most appropriate technology platform.

Which are your main clients?

We maintain a wide client base representing many sectors. Our client list includes mainline operators such as NileDutch, feeder lines such as Unifeeder, project cargo operators like Rickmers, ro-ro operators such as Hoegh and many others.
A full list of our clients is available at www.softship.com

Would it be accurate to state that without the proper software support, a liner company is destined to financial failure at some point? What are your offerings in terms of support towards your clients?

It would certainly be true to say that any liner company operating in today’s market requires a solid software platform to enable it to perform in the efficient manner expected by its customers. And since software applications are so deeply entrenched in a company’s daily activities it is likely that any software failure would have a severe impact on that company’s ability to continue its business. Therefore, robust software is required alongside a good support mechanism.
We ensure that all our applications are tried and tested before installation. We also offer our clients support from Europe and Asia which can be 24/7 if required. Our first level support gives practical advice on software use whilst second level support is for deeper, technical issues given by software engineers. To ensure a high system availability we also offer fully managed services including hosting and system administration.

Are you looking into expanding your business in other areas as well in the near future?

Our core market is liner shipping and we will focus our future efforts here as we are continually seeing additional potential to implement further automation. This sector continues to grow and evolve and is also highly competitive. We will continue to expand our product portfolio to introduce new and improved software that addresses current and future pain points and delivers competitive advantage. Cost management is a good example and one that is currently attracting much interest.

Given the complexities involved in container trade, since it’s the most used means of transportation globally, would you say that this business segment is among the most pioneering ones, in terms of adopting new technologies?

In terms of the shipping industry it is probably true to say that the container industry is in more need of good software than other sectors, such a dry bulk. The sheer number of container movements undertaken by a shipping company each day makes automation essential. Therefore, this sector is more likely to adopt these new technologies than other sectors. That said, not all carriers are taking advantage of the many benefits that automation brings. Whilst a number are very advanced, others are under-utilising IT and experiencing inefficiencies and poor service delivery as a result.

Do you think that the way forward for container liner companies is investing in more efficient vessels and saving on fuel, through slow steaming, or are there other ways of cutting costs?

In the main, container operators have difficulty controlling their revenues. Box rates are set by the market. Therefore, when rates are as low as they are today, operators must look for economies. The trend towards larger vessels is increasing and we will soon see Maersk’s “Triple E” vessels of 18,000 teu come on-stream. These larger ships offer economies of scale and many commentators are saying that bigger ships are required to ensure long-term survivability. Bunker costs are also a significant factor and slow steaming as well as “eco-design” vessels that use technological innovations such as propeller boss fins to save fuel are also becoming popular. Many carriers are implementing these initiatives to reduce operating costs but, surprisingly, only a fraction of carriers are actively using automation to reduce administration costs and increase profitability. Introducing efficiencies into the business through automation will not generate the same level of savings as some of these other initiatives, but they will make significant inroads into the cost base. And, as importantly, they will free up staff to concentrate on customer service which is becoming increasingly important in today’s demanding world.

Nikos Roussanoglou, Hellenic Shipping News Worldwide

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