SAL Heavy Lift is an expert at transporting the largest cargoes across the world’s oceans, but its biggest lift in recent years has been to digitize complex administrative processes that have long weighed down the project cargo industry.
Maritime project cargoes are complex undertakings both in their uniqueness and physical handling, but they are equally complicated by the persistent documentation and different communication channels associated with each shipment.
“We move assets worth millions of dollars, but technology has not kept pace in our industry,” said Claas Matthies, chief information officer of SAL Heavy Lift, which is based in Hamburg, Germany. “We need to focus on improving our data management if we want to take this industry to the next level.”
Matthies, 47, was promoted to CIO of SAL in January to lead the carrier’s digitalization strategy, combined with his current responsibilities for global accounting and merger and acquisition activities.
“Digitalization of business processes is becoming an ever-more competitive parameter and we see great potential in developing our digital landscape even further from today,” said SAL CEO Martin Harren in a statement at the time of Matthias’ appointment to CIO. “As a modern and dynamic shipping group, information technology plays a vital role in our further growth and development.”
Complexity on top of complexity
SAL was founded in 1980 and in 2017 became part of the Harren & Partner Group. The carrier’s fleet of ships offer up to 32,000 square feet of main deck space and have on-deck cranes capable of raising cargoes of 550 to 2,000 tons.
Until recently, SAL’s operations have been driven by disparate information systems, mounds of paperwork and numerous telephone calls and emails.
“This is an engineer-driven process in which plans, drawings and calculations are put together and must be shared with the clients,” Matthies said. “We realize that there is a real potential to digitize this process and make it smarter.”
Prior to his appointment as SAL’s CIO, Matthies worked for Harren & Partner Group since 2011, where he oversaw IT and finance. He was put in charge of the company’s implementation of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and ship management software for a global vessel fleet consisting of about 70 ships and a global staff of 280.
In 2017, Matthies helped to integrate SAL into Harren & Partner Group’s operation. The new ERP system, MS Dynamic Navision, automated the carrier’s purchase-to-pay process, eliminating thousands of paper invoices.
Steaming past rigid IT infrastructure
A top priority for Matthies is finding suitable cloud-based information technologies for their flexibility and not being tied down to rigid IT infrastructure.
The company recently implemented a cloud-based voyage management system (Veson’s IMOS VIP application), which largely supports the important functions of chartering, operations and administration.
“In doing so, data transparency has been increased enormously and use of real-time information stored in a place accessible for users across all SAL departments and offices worldwide allows for deeper insights and better conclusions,” Matthies said.
SAL also plans to implement a new ship management application for crewing, maintenance, purchasing and quality this year.
The company declined to say how much it has invested in new IT solutions since 2017.
Matthies said SAL’s implementation of on-line collaborative communications tools last year has allowed the company to continue its IT strategy unabated, even with most of its management and staff working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
However, SAL still has more IT work ahead. In ocean project cargo shipping, individual contracts are the daily reality and standardizing or even blockchaining complex tenders is a monumental task, Matthies said.
Comparing containers to projects
Matthies told American Shipper that he spends considerable time studying the IT structures of the container-shipping industry.
“If you follow the idea of containerized shipping that the parcel is as important as the information then you would assume that there would be the same trend in heavy-lift shipping,” he said.
This is not the case for most international project cargoes, which by their very nature are ad-hoc and non-repetitive. However, there are still IT best practices and tools that can be gleaned from the ocean container carriers.
“I am excited to see what will materialize even in our market space, seeing liner companies embracing new opportunities for technology usage and serving as a blueprint for our business, at least in parts,” Matthies said.
New IT breeds new talent
Matthies said the implementation of new technologies in what has been a traditionally, slow-to-change industry has become easier with SAL’s younger staff willingly embracing digitization of work processes.
Long-term, he also sees the value of having the latest IT in place at SAL to attract future talent to the project cargo shipping industry.
“Putting emphasis on digitization is necessary to keep up with the crowd, but at the end of the day it is important that these investments improve our ability to make the best business decisions and increase our financial results,” he said.