How recognising the role of the crew is key to drive fuel and carbon reduction at sea

Harriet Hunnisett-Johnson
'A large amount of surprise has been shown in reaction to the significant 12% reduction in fuel consumption that Signol’s trial produced with ship management company Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement Deutschland (BSMD). As a seafarer, I didn’t share this surprise.' Our Head of Maritime, Harriet Johnson, discusses the importance of seafarers in reducing carbon at sea.

A large amount of surprise has been shown in reaction to the significant 12% reduction in fuel consumption that Signol’s trial produced with ship management company Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement Deutschland (BSMD).

As a seafarer, I didn’t share this surprise. I have seen first-hand how the crew are constantly making decisions with multiple priorities and endless factors and nuances to consider. Each of these decisions has enormous potential consequences for safety of life, pollution and massive amounts of fuel. With the BSMD trial, we proved that with targeted application of nudge theory and behavioural science these crews can achieve amazing things.

I joined the team at Signol in 2020, attracted by their joint mission to decrease carbon emissions and introduce effective communication with the individuals behind operational decisions. This combination was used to empower the operator to reduce carbon emissions while increasing job satisfaction. The first proven example of this method was achieved for airline pilots in a study with Virgin Atlantic, University of Chicago and London School of Economics, where $6.1 million of fuel was saved and CO2 emissions were reduced by 24,000 tonnes in just eight months. I was keen to help Signol reproduce this effect onboard a vessel.

We started on this voyage with a feasibility study run in conjunction with UCL. The study, STEAM, was undertaken as part of the Clean Maritime Call, a Maritime Research and Innovation UK (MarRI-UK) initiative supported by the UK Department for Transport (DfT), to look into the practical aspects of applying the Signol method onboard a vessel. We also ran a separate extensive analysis of over two years of noon report data from more than 400 vessels. The findings were clear on all fronts - there is a big difference in efficiency practices between individual Captains and Chief Engineers. 

Although the cockpit of an airplane and the bridge and Engine Control Room (ECR) on a ship are very different places, operators in both need to make similar decisions on the implementation, or not, of certain measures. When a Captain of an aircraft decides they need to turn off an engine, they are the one who reaches for the controls and carries out the action. A typical procedure for a ship’s Captain to turn off an engine involves giving at least an hour's notice to the ECR. The engineer on watch then goes to the engine room and starts making the extensive adjustments and preparations needed before the Engineer contacts the officer on the bridge to say they are ready and receives the request to turn off the engine. Even that process varies extensively depending on the vessel type and engine configuration. In all this extra complexity, finding the key behaviours to nudge the crew on was a near-impossible task. 

We were lucky to find a shipping company that had the necessary traits to help. BSMD are forward-thinking, have a strong and genuine respect for their crew and the quality of data needed to measure and pinpoint the behaviours to target. They agreed to run a full trial of the Signol system on 23 of their vessels. The Signol product team worked hard to adapt the Signol app and messages, set up initially for airline pilots, to work for the maritime industry. We created a password-protected email system for communications alongside the app to overcome WiFi and connectivity issues experienced at sea whilst also maintaining discretion and privacy for each Captain and Chief Engineer. 

Signol has released a case study on the BSMD's trial results (click on the image to preview)

The Captains and Chief Engineers were given the option to join the trial and 30 signed up to participate. We nudged on specific behaviours, like Auxiliary Engine Usage (AEU), but also on more generic behaviours, like daily fuel oil consumption, realising the crew would have the knowledge and expertise to carry out the necessary changes specific to their vessel and operations. We ran the trial for four months and received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the crew involved. 

During those four months, Signol’s independently reviewed data analysis showed that the 30 participating Captains and Chief Engineers saved 4,000 metric tonnes of main engine fuel oil and 122 metric tonnes of marine diesel from the auxiliary engines. We estimate that to be equivalent to about 14,000 tonnes of CO2 saved, not to mention over $3million worth of bunker fuel. 

The Captains and Chief Engineers rose to the challenge and the results were amazing. The trust in the crew's understanding and role as the expert in their specific environment worked.

Seafarers the world over are too often overlooked. I am really excited to have been part of a trial that has proven their important role in the huge environmental task we are faced with. The ships out there on the oceans are manned with people - they keep the world going and Signol has proven their support and recognition is key to reducing emissions at sea.

About Signol

Signol is a software platform that draws on insights from behavioral economics to encourage employees to make more efficient decisions. Signol provides personalized feedback through multiple communication channels, as well as data analysis for managers. In aviation, Signol aims to use behavioral "nudges" and incentives to reduce pollution and fuel waste and cut operating costs.

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