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Virtual network reduces the risk of disturbances

21 February 2024

While disruptions in container shipping are predicted to become more prevalent in the future, transport buyers are increasingly dissatisfied with the uncertainties surrounding the arrival of their deliveries at their final destinations. One solution to this could be the Virtual Watch Tower Network – a kind of maritime Facebook that gives cargo owners greater ability to manage risks and unforeseen events in the supply chain.

Just last week, Lighthouse published an article about a research project that studied disruptions in container shipping over three years. Chalmers researcher Ceren Altuntas Vural explained that the recent disruptions are something we will have to live with for quite some time. Behind this are primarily climate change and a growing geopolitical crisis. This means that shipping companies and transport owners must begin to gain control and insights across the entire multimodal delivery chain and have the ability to quickly choose alternative solutions when needed.

"It is necessary. Shipping must function like a pipeline, or else everything comes to a halt," said Ceren Altuntas Vural.

This is particularly important for a country like Sweden, where shipping accounts for 90 percent of all imports and exports. So how do you do it best? First and foremost, it is important to receive information as early as possible when disruptions occur so that new routes can be planned. This is where the Virtual Watch Tower initiative (www.virtualwatchtower.org), coordinated by RISE together with its counterparts in Finland and Singapore, comes into the picture. The idea is that everyone who joins the network – cargo owners, shipping companies and other transport operators, ports and other transport nodes – agrees to share their data with each other. So far, complexity and competition have contributed to a reluctance to do so, but now it seems that a change is underway.

"There is frustration among transport buyers. One is tired of the predictability in shipping being so low and not knowing when one's goods will be available at the port. According to Alleima, one of our partners, for example, their transport time from Sandviken to New York varies between 26 and 46 days. What should one then tell one's customer who wonders when the goods will arrive?" says Mikael Lind, Senior Researcher at RISE and initiator of the Virtual Watch Tower Network.

The concept is to create an internet (a so-called VWTnet), or if you will, a Facebook mainly for shipping, where everyone involved in the supply chain has their own page, their own Virtual Watch Tower, where information about important events is shared – such as route planning, delays, port readiness, and emission data. The idea is then that the cargo owner, who pays for the transports, can trust that the disruptions that occur will be resolved by the parties involved. For such a system to work, of course, as many cargo owners as possible must join.

"In the pilot project we are currently running, 19 actors are involved, but I can say that about 30 are on board. We have major Swedish transport buyers such as Stora Enso, Scania, and Ericsson, but also various dominant transport and terminal operators. Additionally, many new ones are approaching us now who believe that we have a solution to a major problem in progress," says Mikael Lind, who believes in a domino effect.

"It's a bit like with Spotify. If only a few record companies had joined, not many listeners would have been attracted, because a comprehensive range is required."

Interest in VWT is high. In December 2023, Mikael Lind presented the concept during the Swedish delegation visit to Singapore Indo Pacific led by Minister for Foreign Trade Johan Forssell.

"We will return in April to present a demonstration of the solution during Singapore Maritime Week. We will probably do the same at the major shipping fair SMM in Hamburg in September," says Mikael Lind.

Watch the video about VWT


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