As all industries, marine industry is in constant change due to incredible development in computing, software and network infrastructure. Navigating with paper charts and maintaining the vessel with screw driver is soon becoming history. Modern ships are complex and highly sophisticated systems where the means for operating are more and more being digitalized, but where are we really today and where will we be in the future.
In history, shipping has been relatively conservative and highly CAPEX orientated business. That combined with the very strong influence of regulatory bodies governing the industry has caused the shipping industry to lag behind the development of digitalized solutions; perhaps with the exception of offshore (11.9%), and cruise segment (0.4%) representing combined percentage of 12.3% of world’s mobile vessels fleet according to Clarkson’s data.
This post benchmarks the shipping industry against other industries on the previously mentioned three areas: computing, software and network infrastructure:
It would be unfair to claim that the shipping industry is not technologically advanced because modern ships do not have the computing power of IBM’s Watson super computer – it is simply not required. More relevant comparison would be smartphone found in each of our pockets. Modern smartphones are packed with incredible computing power on weight and size to performance ratio and even more important the industry has set clear standards for the hardware. Due to standardized hardware it is easy for companies and individual developers to innovate on new products and services. In comparison, within the shipping industry more or less each service provider is utilizing their own hardware and installing it on board the vessel and all the benefits of shared and standardized hardware are lost.
Software frontier within shipping is two folded. On one side we have highly developed software such as Dynamic Positioning software, calculating the state of the vessel in the surrounding environment based on sensor input and thereby adjusting the thrust power to counteract the forces of the environment. On the other side we have the same fragmentation as in hardware: each software is designed for purpose, with its own inputs, outputs and man machine interfaces. Increased technology tends to make this fragmentation even more visible, creating a claustrophobic environment for the actual user. The problem is evident in the vessels wheelhouse where single equipment alarm will result in poorly integrated system to cause multiple systems to signal alarms, stealing the focus from the operation and fault finding into manually acknowledging and shutting down redundant alarms. Within the consumer electronic business this is handled on the ecosystem level where the major players are setting clear boundaries for the used software as well as providing design templates for achieving unified user experience throughout the different software and services.
Network infrastructure can be viewed from macro and micro level. The macro level representing global scale of ships communicating to and from shore, as well as among each other. The micro level can be seen as communication of the people and systems within the ship. Modern satellite technology allows practically full coverage throughout the oceans and close to all modern hardware is somehow network connected. That being said, we are seeing very limited remote operation and maintenance support and it seems to be a taboo to even mention remotely operated vessels. Tesla electric car owner can use a smartphone to check the power level of the battery, and anyone owning any internet connected device can view live feed from a NASA satellite orbiting earth. How many ship owners know the exact state and location of their vessels?
To repeat what was stated in the beginning, modern vessels are highly sophisticated systems, but there is a lot of room for innovation and improvement to bring the industry into 21st century compared to other industries. Vessels are being operated in harsher than ever conditions and more and more crowded seas. Environmental regulations and new fuel technologies will demand more sophisticated solutions. End consumers are demanding higher level of service enabled by the modern technology, weather it is a person waiting for the package to arrive on a cargo vessel or an oil company wanting to know the status of their chartered Platform Supply Vessel. All the above combined with the trend that crews of modern vessels are getting more multi-cultural, and the degree of technology and cultural knowledge varies dramatically, the need for modern, harmonized, efficient and most importantly user centrically designed solutions is increasing.
Some see this as a threat, other as an opportunity. Companies such as Wärtsilä see it as an opportunity, and utilize the potential by offering integrated and harmonized ship control systems through Wärtsilä Control & Communication Center – 3C.