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All Hands (and Containers) on Deck, with AI’s New SONATA

“Full ships!” is a parting greeting often heard in the liner shipping industry. It’s how sales professionals say “bon voyage” or “all the best” to the sales team as they start their daily grind of maximizing vessel revenue and profits. With 90% of the world’s trade done via shipping containers it is no wonder that liner operators are concerned about keeping ships full, safe, and profitable.

But first, what is a “full ship”?

According to Solverminds’ recently published whitepaper on optimized stowage, the cargo capacity of service is calculated in Twenty Equivalent Units (TEUs) based on 90% of the ship’s nominal capacity. However, an essential factor when calculating capacity from a commercial perspective, is the weight of the said TEU. Therefore, a vessel’s capacity is actually a combination of volume and weight. 

Ideally, one would hope to reach a balance between TEU allocation and the average weight of the cargo. However, more often than not the commercial agent overbooks the vessel and in a majority of cases it is overbooked by weight in a bid to cover any shortfalls. The use of High Cube containers (containers that are 1 foot higher than standard equipment) also have an impact on the volumetric capacity of a vessel.

This is why a planner’s imperative is to carry out multiple manual iterations in the stowage system and produce results that are acceptable and could be used by trade managers. This is time-consuming, provides opportunities to cut corners, is fraught with human error, and offers little clarity to stakeholders.

Enter the Stowage Planner

The task of planning a container vessel’s stowage falls on the shoulders of a highly experienced and specialized team. Working in a high-pressured environment, they understand the operational, commercial, and human consequences of the need for well-structured plans. They have in-depth knowledge of the structure and pattern of each service that they plan, what type of cargo lift can be expected  in each port, and what the appropriate stowage space will be for future cargo from each subsequent port.

Aside from trying to maximize load capacity on a vessel, a stowage planner’s task can greatly impact the safety of a vessel, its cargo, crew, and the environment. This is why the planner always has the final word on stowage of the vessel. This often results in a clash of wills between trade managers when containers have been ‘rolled over’ in favor of greater stability.

The Causes of Vessel Instability and Stress Limits

In 2019 it was estimated that the global liner shipping industry moved close to 226 million containers with cargo worth more than US$4 trillion. However, a recent study showed that, on average, one shipping container is lost at sea every hour – that is 10,000 every year.

A number of factors can contribute to containers lost at sea. These include:

  • Improper packing and securing of the cargo into the container.
  • Mismatched cargo loading plans between commercial and stowage teams.
  • Multi-partner services – where more than one carrier operates within the vessel sharing agreement (VSA), and planners receive cargo forecasts at the last minute, in various formats, at different times, and with vital details missing.
  • Poor lashing performance, be it due to being improperly selected, improperly applied or poorly maintained, can dramatically influence a stow collapse incident.
  • Misdeclaration of weight, resulting in overloading of lashings and container frames when heavy containers are stowed on top of light and/or stack loads are exceeded.
  • Inadequate planning due to reliance on outdated systems or lack of time or capacity to run manual calculations. 

However, even if all of these challenges and tasks are executed correctly and by the book, there can be unusual events outside of the planner and crew’s control that result in containers being lost at sea. This could be anything ranging from severe weather, rough seas, ship groundings, structural failures, and even collisions.

The Dire Results of Inadequate Stowage Planning: Accidents and Container-Loss at Sea

The grave safety concerns and risks associated with poor stowage planning are highlighted to all involved on these voyages. Inadequate stowage planning can result in loss of cargo, disruptions in operations, profit loss, environmental damage, and loss of life. 

Not only are stowage planners often tasked to plan complex stowage of cargo quickly and under tremendous pressure, but rapid changes in vessel, routes, and cargo further complicate issues, making vessels more prone to accidents or container loss. For example, high cube boxes can present a larger windage area and higher centre of gravity. Last-minute changes in ballast can cause a larger metacentric height (GM) than the stowage plan envisaged, often resulting in a stiffer ship motion with higher accelerations.

This is further compounded when vessels are tasked with transporting dangerous goods. Even greater care and attention is required from planners to avoid catastrophes to the environment and to human life. In response to the need for maritime safety, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) developed the IMDG Code. This set of international regulations can greatly enhance the safe carriage of hazardous material and dangerous goods.

Safe loading and stowage of DG cargo is paramount, for the safety of people, vessels and Terminals. Stowing the DG containers properly and ensuring compliance with IMDG segregation rules is the key aspect and challenging to plan stowage of DG containers.

SONATA tackles this challenge by using the following approach:

  • Using a highly efficient optimization engine, first solve the cargo segregation, starting with the most sensitive DG’s. Using the latest IMDG Code rules, the vessel restrictions, and the carrier’s “house rules” for DG stowage.
  • The optimization engine clusters the DG cargo in few bays to reduce the loss of space due to segregation requirements for future ports’ DG cargo.
  • It plans the DG cargo having into consideration other types of cargoes, reefers, for example, to split from the beginning potential issues in the whole rotation of the vessel”.
  • “Risk zones”, “Preferred zones” and “Banned zones” for DG units can be set up letting carriers adjust dynamically the distribution of DG items.

When planners use stowage planning tools, like SONATA, that help them adhere strictly to the IMDG standards for dangerous goods, voyages are less prone to accidents and disasters.

The Benefits of Stowage Planning Automation with SONATA

There are many well-documented benefits of automation and digitization, among which is the reduction of risk of incidents and accidents at sea. Automated stowage planning tools like SONATA use a mix of optimization algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) processes to provide stowage planners and stevedores with customized stowage plans for each vessel. This optimized stowage planning takes international safety regulations into consideration for improved safety, and optimizes cargo loading, lashing and Dangerous Goods stowage. 

Easy to use, SONATA does all the heavy lifting for the stowage team, stowing containers quickly, efficiently, and accurately for an optimal plan that not only increases revenue, but also ensures crew, vessel and cargo safety.

Embrace the Power of AI for Stowage Planning with SONATA

With many years of experience providing technical solutions to shipping liners, SONATA is designed, developed, and supported by the same dedicated, passionate team behind the other reliable, smart Solverminds solutions that you know and trust. 

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