Maersk Line Sustainability Progress Update: The Rocket Science of Network Optimisation

How do you optimise a network of container shipping routes that spans the globe, and where every country and every container terminal represents its own set of variables? Basically, it takes Excel and excellence – and not necessarily in that order.
Apr 8, 2014 6:00 AM ET
The Maersk Line network in Asia.

It’s a lot about understanding the flow of it. We have a global network of more than 550 ships sailing around the world. Drawn on a map it looks like a chaos of spaghetti with lines and routes criss-crossing each other; but to the trained eye it looks like, well, organised spaghetti, « says Søren Toft, Chief Operations Officer.

He embodies the recent change of philosophy at Maersk Line, where a strengthened department responsible for planning the network in 2013 undertook the enormous task of optimising the entire network of shipping routes.

However, as he underlines, this task was not carried out by a large department with hundreds of specialists; even though a lot of data-crunching goes into the task. »Bill Gates really is a good friend of ours,« as he puts it, with reference to extensive use of Excel spreadsheets.

Much of the work has to do with a more creative process and you need to be able to keep the complexity in your head and spot opportunities.

»We find things that we weren’t actually looking for. And we end up with different actions than we expected.« Part of this has to do with bringing different perspectives to the table - different groups are looking at different sections of the map of the network, but one group is specifically tasked with looking across the network.

However, outside help is also vital, with Maersk Line employees from all over the globe reporting their observations and input, based on the daily execution of the network.

It sounds impressive, but it also sounds like the kind of work where computer beats man. Well, think again. Even when a technical university tried to model the network in order to find a mathematical solution to optimising the network, they had to give up.

»It is such a difficult mathematical problem, with so many variables, it almost impossible to solve in a computer model. You need to know how shipping really works to find solutions that also make sense.

Download Maersk Line's Sustainability Progress Update 2013: