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AI and cargo shipping: Full speed ahead for global maritime trade

As the old saying goes: Time is money. And, that’s never been truer than in the competitive world of international shipping, where unforeseen delays or miscalculations can cost millions of dollars.

Thousands of cargo ships ply the oceans and keep world trade moving ahead every day. But poor weather, congested ports, equipment breakdowns, and mishaps of all kinds make for anything but smooth sailing. An unexpected delay for just one vessel can sometimes cascade into a logistical nightmare for an entire fleet with schedules thrown out of kilter across multiple ports and trading hubs – impacting the flow of globalized supply chains.

Adding to the physical challenges are fluctuating trade volumes among economies: A vessel that sails off in one direction with containers crammed full of goods can too often sail back unprofitably empty.

So with world trade accelerating in the 4th Industrial Revolution, how do we iron out such inefficiencies? How can cloud-based technology help?

Steve Siu, Chief Information Officer of OOCL

Imagine using the Internet of Things (IoT) to constantly collect data on all voyage-impacting factors, both on and off a ship. Predictive analytics through artificial intelligence (AI) would lead to operational adjustments and decisions to keep vessels moving in the most cost-effective ways.

Such insights could, for instance, help a captain save on fuel by optimally maintaining and varying speed to port.

Similarly, a course or balance route time could be amended to avoid anticipated port congestion or deteriorating weather. Operational flexibility and co-ordination could be introduced across multiple vessels to smooth out the transfer of cargo across multiple points, saving both money and time.

Logjams could be avoided. Under-utilized routes and schedules could be recast and made more profitable.

With this mind, shipping giant, Orient Overseas Container Line Limited (OOCL), has come together with Microsoft Research Asia (MSRA) on a digital transformation journey to identify, manage and overcome all sorts of operational uncertainties and create efficiencies.

OOCL has a proud track record of adopting new technologies with real business impact. It has fully embraced a hybrid cloud infrastructure with auto-switching and auto-scaling throughout its business and ML for several years. And, it has more than 1,000 developers in San Jose in the United States, as well as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Zhuhai in China, and Manila in the Philippines.

It regards AI as key to its future, and so it has turned to MSRA – Microsoft’s fundamental research arm in the Asia Pacific, which is leading in the development and application of AI. Recently, the two sides spent 15 weeks together optimizing OOCL’s existing shipping network operations – a task that Steve Siu, Chief Information Officer of OOCL, estimates will save the shipping company around USD10 million in costs annually.

WATCH: Bloomberg TV – Microsoft is accelerating AI adoption in Asia-Pacific

Following that success, they have announced a new 18-month research and development partnership to apply deep learning and reinforcement learning in shipping network operations.

Microsoft Research Asia head, Dr. Hsiao-Wuen Hon

“We look forward to strengthening our partnership with MSRA to leverage AI research and innovations to drive digital transformation in the shipping industry and to exchange knowledge among our top developers so that we can better address customer needs with advanced technologies and predictive analytics,” Siu said.

Dr. Hsiao-Wuen Hon, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft, Chairman of Microsoft’s Asia-Pacific R&D Group, and Managing Director of Microsoft Research Asia, said his team is made up of some of the world’s best researchers who invent solutions for customers with bleeding-edge technologies.

“MSRA is devoted to seeking broad and deep engagement opportunities with academic communities and vertical industries, in order to promote collaboration, cultivate innovation, advance education, and turn ideas into reality,” he said.

“Microsoft AI’s offering is a combination of technology, business models, and user experience. Shipping network operations involve multiple parties and variables, which can change at any moment.

General Manager of Microsoft Hong Kong, Cally Chan

“Embracing AI is a complex business challenge in digital transformation. MSRA’s AI research experts have joined forces with OOCL to optimize its existing shipping operations using deep and reinforcement learning.”

As part of this ambitious R&D effort, MSRA and OOCL are grooming more than 200 AI developers during the next 12 months through a unique training partnership. The aim is to equip OOCL with the AI expertise it will need to succeed further in the future.

READ the media release: MSRA and OOCL embrace AI in digital Transformation

“Microsoft is committed to providing cutting-edge AI solutions for companies in different industries to help drive digital transformation,” said Cally Chan, General Manager of Microsoft Hong Kong.

“With our Intelligent Cloud and Intelligent Edge vision, we are partnering with top customers worldwide to accelerate the adoption of AI innovations into product and solutions that can be applied to a real business context.

“The partnership between MSRA and OOCL demonstrates our strong progress in revolutionizing the shipping industry.”

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