An interview with Shaun Thomas, CCO of Westug
Shaun Thomas, COO of Westug, is an experienced maritime professional, with a background as a harbour master in Queensland and various nautical roles at the main towage companies and with AMSA in Australia. As COO of WESTUG, Shaun is responsible for the safe and efficient operation of the Operations in Port Hedland. To effectively and efficiently plan the available tug fleet, WESTUG deploys a team of schedulers, who are actively using OptiPort on a daily basis. Since Shaun has been working in various operational management roles, he was the designated person to review the performance and usability of the OptiPort application.
What are your experiences with other planning tools for towage operations, and what are the differences with OptiPort?ST: I have worked in Vessel Traffic Services before, these applications did optimize the way traffic interacts; however, these are static systems that only manage data. The difference with OptiPort is the Artificial Intelligence component; because of that, OptiPort can very well support and contributes to the human thinking aspect, which makes all the difference. Working in towage in very complex and demanding environments requires fast decision making, choosing the best option out of all the alternatives available. Artificial intelligence perfectly supports this. So far, in my career, I have not come across any system that is capable of what OptiPort does.
Can you tell us more about what the Artificial Intelligence aspect means for your operations?
ST: Our biggest challenge when it comes to planning is to take all regulations and local circumstances into account, for instance, working hours of the crew, optimal mobilization speed of the tugs, the best routing of the tugs, fatigue management policies, etc. OptiPort has programmed all these regulations and local business rules, which is very helpful and adds to the well-being of the crews, it eliminates fatigue due to too long working hours, and it determines the most optimal resting periods of the crews, also taking STCW rules into account. There are just so many of these rules to take into account, which makes it hard for the dispatchers to choose the best options and make the best decisions. Artificial Intelligence, therefore very much supports our dispatchers. It also helped us to bring the team in a very short time frame up to speed in the complex environment of Port Hedland.
Was it difficult to implement the tool and for the schedulers to get used to it?
ST: The implementation went very smoothly; the constant feedback with the developers allowed for a quite quick learning curve; the responsiveness of the developers was definitely one of the keys to success. Of course, there were some bugs and issues, but these where fixed in no time. It took us approximately one month of dummy planning before we took off. Because we implemented the OptiPort system into our existing operational system (HELM connect), the dispatchers did not have to spend a lot of time on learning the new application.
How did the planners experience the training?
ST: They experienced the tool as very user-friendly and easy to understand. Also, because everything you need to know is integrated in the tool. This means that we can train our people in a much shorter period, which saves us time and money.
What is the feedback of your schedulers after a couple of months of working with OptiPort?
ST: After three months, we conducted a thorough evaluation and unanimously, the results are very positive. Everyone is really excited about the product. Of course, there are also a few minor issues, and there are still things we wish for, but we trust these will come up in the future since there are many possibilities to move further, and also possibilities in the system we have not explored yet. To get support directly with the developers is quite fast and, in my experience, also unique when compared to other established software system providers.
What do you consider the most important advantage of Optiport?
We have decided to set up the operation as lean as possible, which means using our resources most efficiently. On the office side, Optiport very much supports us in this approach. When looking at the operation and the deployment of the tugs, OptiPort also ensures that we are using the available assets in the most optimum way possible, also taking into account the fuel consumption and tug availability. With Optiport we are confident that schedule changes or other operational variances are always received and implemented on the spot in the schedules. This feature is impossible to get when planning the scheduling manually in such a demanding port like Port Hedland. I can, therefore, state that Optiport is an important piece of the puzzle to deliver an excellent towage service in Port Hedland.
As we like to improve OptiPort looking forward, we would like to understand what you would be looking for in terms of added functionality in the coming releases of OptiPort?
We would like to see an option to multi-select jobs to fix/unfix allocations. Currently this is done manually, one by one, and it would be great if we can select multiple jobs for this. Besides this, there is actually not much we wish for.