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What happens when machine learning meets ocean shipping?


We have developed a first-of-its-kind digital innovation that gives us extremely accurate real-time visibility across our sea freight operations. This will transform how we manage logistics and boost our efforts to drive sustainability across the ocean shipping industry.

Aerial view of a container ship about to dock at the Port of Thailand

Getting our products into the hands of the 2.5 billion consumers in 190 countries who use them daily requires complex logistics. And an integral part of that is ocean shipping.

At any given time, we have around 12,000 containers on 1,500 ships criss-crossing the seas with raw materials, packaging and finished goods. In fact, by the time you finish reading this article, another Unilever container will have started its journey.

Shipping is one of the oldest industries in the world, and getting a container across waters involves numerous parties from customs agents and port authorities to inland transporters and freight forwarders. Across all these, there’s a multitude of information systems that don’t talk to each other, which results in lack of end-to-end visibility.

Until now, that is.

In collaboration with several partners, we have developed the Virtual Ocean Control Tower: a first-of-its-kind digital innovation that has transformed how we manage our sea freight logistics.

This unmanned system seamlessly connects all parties in the chain through a real-time electronic data interchange (EDI) information flow.

That means we have at our fingertips highly accurate, continually updated data on the status of each shipment at every stage of its journey, from its point of departure to when it reaches the distributor, store or factory.

Crucially, the system uses machine learning and predictive analytics, so every potential issue along the way – from port congestion to demurrage and detention charges, temperature deviation and ETA changes – is proactively identified and an alert automatically sent to everyone who needs to know.

“We’re transforming our technology backbone to create a highly agile, responsive and end-to-end connected supply chain. This innovation is one piece of that puzzle,” says Michelle Grose, Unilever’s Head of Logistics and Fulfilment. “It gives us real-time visibility of each step in the process, so we can plan better and respond quicker and, importantly, predict and proactively deal with issues.”

The Virtual Ocean Control Tower connects 25 shipping lines, using satellite data to track more than 2,000 vessels and 400 ports, as well as hundreds of raw and pack material suppliers.

This part of the supply chain is then visualised using an interactive Google map that is refreshed automatically every 30 minutes. This allows users to get an overall view of ship locations and movements across the globe, and then zoom in to see details of individual vessels and their cargo.

“Unilever’s Virtual Ocean Control Tower is a pioneering innovation and a first of its kind in the industry,” says Adam Compain, CEO and founder of technology partner ClearMetal. “Rather than establishing a physical control tower and making do with static data and manual efforts, Unilever has leapfrogged into zero-touch monitoring and predictive controls.”

The Virtual Ocean Control Tower dashboard looking over the Indian ocean

The Virtual Ocean Control Tower dashboard allows users to get an overall view of ship locations and movements across the globe, and then zoom in to see details of individual vessels and their cargo.

Paradigm shifts in our operations

The Virtual Ocean Control Tower has changed how we manage our ocean logistics in three fundamental ways. We have gone from reacting to issues as they arise to being able to proactively identify and mitigate them. Whereas before we had to request information from various sources, that data is now automatically collected, processed and turned into usable insights. And rather than reviewing performance after an event, we’re now evaluating, learning and adjusting as things happen.

As Michelle says: “These shifts have been extremely valuable during the Covid pandemic, which has increased volatility and delays in shipping while at the same restricted most of the team to working from home. Through its pro-active real-time visibility and alerts, the Virtual Ocean Control Tower has helped team members across Unilever and our partners save time by eliminating the need to chase information.”

Tackling emissions across the shipping industry

There is increasing focus on the greenhouse gas emissions created by ocean transport. And for good reason. If it was a country, global shipping would rank sixth largest in terms of GHG output.

In June 2020, we committed to net zero emissions from all our products by 2039. One aspect of achieving this requires us to drive transformation across the shipping industry as a whole.

We are currently developing a way of also tracking emissions in real time so that we can benchmark ocean carriers against industry standards and drive improvements.

“The Virtual Ocean Control Tower will be a valuable tool in helping us and our shipping line partners work towards greater sustainability in our oceans,” concludes Michelle.

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