In Depth: Interview: How Smart Are Your Ships?

Becoming “smart” in the shipping industry has been a hot topic over the recent period as the rise of technology promises to unlock numerous benefits, ranging from cost cutting to improved productivity and effectiveness.

Smart containers, smart ships, smart ports are the buzzwords being repeated on a daily basis. But the question is: how to make a smart decision when choosing the right technological solution for one’s fleet or business operation?

To help answer that question, the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) has issued Guidance Notes on Smart Function Implementation to help owners use technology to achieve their operational targets.

Smart technology is aimed at helping collect, process, and perform advanced data analytics, in order to allow the people using that technology to make more informed decisions.

Image Courtesy: ABS

Commenting on the launching of the guidance, Derek Novak, Senior Vice President, Engineering and Technology, ABS, told World Maritime News that the key goal was to recognize “that the industry is embarking on a journey towards smart functionality, with more smart equipment and systems being installed on vessels every day.”

The drivers from the industry that prompted drafting of the notes are twofold, according to Novak.

“Owners and operators want guidance to enable them to truly take advantage of the technology on their vessels to improve operational performance, asset maintenance, or to have a less intrusive class experience. The driver from the equipment manufacturers, who are putting their products on board the vessels, is that they want recognition from class that allows for owners and operators to easily realize the benefits of the technology that they have placed on their assets,” he said.

“If you are building ships or buying modern second-hand tonnage, then ABS can look at what you have on board and help you take advantage of that equipment. A big part of that is being able to adopt technology and have confidence in what it can do for you. It’s not expensive, certainly not to get started and this kind of technology is increasingly going to be found on ships coming out of yard as standard equipment.”

Hence, smart functionality is not intended only for the big players. According to Novak, it’s more about the mindset of taking the technology you may already have and work out how to make that technology fit your goals.

Main Concerns of Owners and Operators

For some owners, the use of new technology can be overwhelming and they don’t know where to get started, Novak continues.

“We have seen a spectrum within the industry and there are many owners who are interested in using technology to their advantage and are trying to figure out how to get smart functions on board.

“The process to implement these technologies needs to be flexible to allow for further advances, but to get the process started we suggest that the owners have a specific goal in mind, for example to improve operational efficiency, to make surveys less intrusive, or to improve performance of the asset overall.

“We work with owners through a process one step at a time to leverage the technology; that’s our unique approach. What we provide is a well-designed framework that will let them set and achieve their goals.

The idea of the guidance is to take owners to a place where they can leverage technology today to meet the defined goals of their business

In addition to setting the goal you want to achieve and choosing the right equipment to do so, there are potential downsides to improper implementation of the technology. Basically, there is a risk is that an owner will not get the benefit out of the technology they have bought.

“It can happen, especially where systems are very complex. The main reason why we see this issue is companies not understanding what they want the technology to do for them; they do not have a goal in place. As we’ve said, just paying for technology is not going to help, when what they really need is a plan.

“Nobody puts digital technology on a ship just because it’s interesting; we’re not in an environment where owners have that luxury. If one buys equipment with state-of-the-art technology they should expect to have it work in their favor. For us it’s a process of helping owners to set a goal, to use the technology to achieve that specific goal.”

Is the Industry Ready to Embrace Smart Shipping?

Novak believes that a considerable portion of the industry is ready to embrace smart shipping and for some straightforward reasons.

“We are living in an era of increasingly demanding regulation and that is driving the collection and reporting of data that has a ‘smart’ element. Secondly, the industry increasingly understands how to use technology to find value and benefit to their operations, so they are moving in the right direction,” he pointed out.

Over time, as the benefits of the technology become embedded, Novak believes flag states and regulators may recognize that having this information available could provide some equivalency to the way that requirements are being fulfilled now.

There will be early adopters who get in there first and pick up the opportunity more rapidly but in the long-term, smart functionality is a philosophy the industry will squarely get behind,” he added.

As explained, smart functionality is part of the industry’s journey to autonomy.

“Years ago most vessels were pretty basic in terms of data technology and humans made a majority of the decisions,” he said.

“Now we’re at the stage of collecting and analyzing data so that humans can make better decisions: that’s ‘smart’. If you look at the world we are heading towards, the next step is semi-autonomous where the machines can take decisions with humans providing oversight and intervention.”

The last step is full autonomy, and for that, “we are going to need a lot more information about operations and maintenance,” according to Novak.

“To get down that path, you really need to take that step fully into smart before you can truly go towards autonomy.”

Can BigData Live Up to the Hype Seen Over the Recent Period?

“For us, avoiding the hype and gaining the benefit of big data is all about focusing on what you need to know. You can collect data from many different locations but it’s the value it provides and the information it delivers that contributes to better decisions,” Novak said.

“If you don’t understand why you’re looking into operational data then yes, it could be a lot of hype. If you want certain questions answered and you want data to help you with those goals, that’s when big data can be a huge asset.

“Let’s not forget we are in the era of IMO 2020 and looking ahead to the IMO’s requirements for carbon emissions reductions after 2030 and 2050. We are going to need to collect and analyse a lot of data – much more than we have now – on vessel operations if we are going to be able to meet a challenge on that scale.”

Interview by Jasmina Ovcina Mandra

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