The Connected Ship


Published Nov 26, 2015 4:50 PM by Wendy Laursen

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2015 edition.)

More than just IT buzzwords, the “paperless,” “connected” ship sending “big data” back to shore is a vision of the future for the shipping industry. But a lot more manual work goes on in shipping than in most industries, and ship managers are discerning and concerned about cost. They are, therefore, choosing their future with care.

The main challenge faced by shipowners now is the same as it has always been, says Mike Golonka, Vice President, Ship Management, for Crowley Maritime Corporation: “Owners’ budgets are tight.” To meet that challenge, Golonka adds, “We need to be creative, but the real challenge is maintaining our safety culture and our transparency.” 

Crowley has owned and operated ships for over 120 years. The company has been third-party managers for decades, and its presence in the international ship management arena has grown massively over the past few years, cemented recently with the Crowley Accord joint venture. 

The IT Difference

The use of IT is becoming more and more pervasive in ship management solutions, says Golonka, driven by the “connected ship” concept and based on more cost-effective satellite communications. Crowley is already benefitting through streamlined reporting and improved vessel operating efficiency, including fuel management. Golonka says the company is using data to tailor its management style to the needs of particular vessels and owners, and he wants to offer them the newest technological advances available. Crowley continues to innovate with, for example, the recent introduction of new seafarer-assessment initiatives. 

An ongoing goal is to reduce the time that seafarers sit at a computer and enter data. “We are using multiple systems to monitor different processes from sending out position reports to doing crew sign-on packages and license information,” Golonka explains, “but I think in the future we’re going to see where all this interacts a little bit more.”

The desire to free-up seafarers from paperwork resonates across the industry. It has been taken up by InterManager, which has named the “paperless ship” as a top priority this year. InterManager’s Secretary General, Captain Kuba Szymanski, says the organization is actively working with state authorities across Europe to make it happen, but it won’t be easy.

Szymanski cites as an example the E.U.’s Maritime Single Window project, which would enable a single email to be used for all the documents a ship needs to visit a port in Europe. The idea is that the information would then be passed on to all the relevant departments, including customs and immigration. “Even with the countries that have said they are working together on this, there is a big problem: internal politics,” says Szymanski. “They don’t want to work together within their own country.”

Poland is an exception, but it is not participating in the Single Window project. Poland has now initiated a system whereby customs coordinates all other stakeholders. Duplication is reduced; ship visits are coordinated and, as a result, ship turnarounds are being reduced from 24 hours to around eight hours.

“The nirvana for InterManager is to have best practices spread among countries in Europe and then even farther afield,” says Szymanski. “The whole idea would be to create a paperless ship and a virtual vessel on a server with all the required data, updated with the latest information and with all relevant parties notified.”

Right now, though, a piece of paper works everywhere you go in the world, says Paul Gresham, Chief Information Officer at Wallem Group, and the quality of IT support for ships around the world varies.

Gresham is positive about the use of big data to improve the operational performance of ships, including hull condition and machinery-performance monitoring: “There are certain things that we do know will work to preempt problems occurring, but until we start measuring and discovering what the possibilities are, it’s too early to predict what will really transform the industry.” Who would have predicted the importance of Twitter, for example, he asks.

“We are not yet at the stage where the industry can benefit from all the developments,” he adds. “Not all ships are connected 24 hours a day with high-speed Internet and unlimited data, but this is the way we are going, and it will happen sooner rather than later. Within the next two years we will have much better connectivity, and all ships will be online. It’s a demand for the business, but it is also a demand by the people – the seafarers themselves.”

The One Indispensable Element

Gresham views the unmanned ship as some way off, probably further off than the 15 years or so that has been applied to Rolls-Royce’s innovations in this area. For now, seafarers are here to stay, and Wallem Group’s Technical Director of Ship Management, Ioannis Stefanou, believes they are indispensable.

“There’s one thing that IT innovation will not achieve and that is to replace the human way of understanding and evaluating a situation,” says Stefanou. “I don’t think we are yet at the point where a computer will replace the master when he is making a tough decision in rough seas. Even with drone ships, humans will be there somewhere making the decisions.”

According to Matt Dunlop, Group Director of Ship Management for V.Ships U.K., “The main challenge for any manager or owner is to ensure the teams employed are the right people with the correct competence, values, attitude toward safety and respect for each other. At V.Group our focus is the development of the next generation of seafarer and ship manager, instilling traditional standards in a modern electronic world. In parallel, our ongoing challenge is to consistently protect and enhance V.Group’s and our clients’ and suppliers’ reputations. Reputation is the most important asset you have, and once it’s lost it’s extremely difficult to recover.”

V.Group employs 2,500 staff, has a global network in 60 locations and manages the recruitment of some 38,000 seafarers. It delivers ship and crew management services to a diverse fleet of over 1,100 vessels and has most recently opened offices in Manila and Aberdeen.

From Costly Necessity to Valuable Investment

Over the past five years IT has moved from being perceived as a costly necessity for the ship-owner to a valuable investment when designed and used correctly, says Stephen MacFarlane, Director of Information Systems, V.Ships U.K. Technology is now seen as an enabler for the efficient and safe operation of vessels. 

“Maritime information technology has needed to evolve quickly to keep pace with information needs in the evolving, highly connected world,” MacFarlane explains. “This in itself provides challenges for ship managers to ensure that their technology solutions can deliver accurate and timely information in what is still a technically remote backdrop with a satellite bandwidth very different from that available ashore.”

MacFarlane adds that V.Group has embraced these challenges by deploying efficient Web services to support the vessel data exchanges and interfaces with clients, suppliers and other partners. “As the volume of data flowing through our operations has increased,” he says, “we have put in place initiatives around the management of data as an asset, thereby ensuring that maximum value is extracted. Over the next five years, more onboard activities will be systemized to reduce duplication and provide single points of data entry, enabling greater onboard and onshore analysis services in a real-time environment.”

For MacFarlane, the ideal scenario would be a level playing field between shipboard and onshore communications, allowing the deployment of cloud-based applications to the vessel. This would reduce the technology management footprint onboard, improve speed of information and reduce support overheads.

David Furnival, COO of Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement, says the company has invested a lot of effort and capital into its own software development: “We’ve developed integrated software capable of managing all the basic ship-management functions such as accounting, crewing, planned maintenance and procurement. We are also moving onto an enterprise integration platform combining our systems with vendor systems, not only at a transactional level but also at a data-integration level.”

The company is working on improved functionality for the crew as well, including reduced reporting burdens and greater automation. One recent development assists the master and chefs on board through a software package that helps automate the production of menus depending on nationality preferences and nutritional balance. It also manages galley stock control, something that in the past was labor-intensive.

The company has developed Client Web Access, which allows shipowners to drill down into its systems, and Furnival sees greater use of condition-based monitoring as well as telemedicine. 

“Killer Items”

However, Furnival is looking beyond the promise of IT with the company’s latest initiative, rolling out over the next two years. The project involves rewriting the company’s safety management systems aviation-style. “We want to simplify procedures and checklists in order to make them more usable onboard and focus on ‘killer items,’ those that, if neglected, have high potential for creating a serious situation.”

The new, simpler but critically focused systems will be incorporated into seafarer training courses. “Aviation adopted this some years back and found it to be very effective in mitigating human error,” Furnival states. The company plans to share the results of its work with the industry as a new best practice.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.