Ready for smart shipping? Yes, but it’s a close run thing.

November 21, 2018

‘This house believes that the industry is not ready to embrace smart shipping’. Such was the title of a parliamentary debate held during the recent Seatrade Middle East Maritime event, gamely attempting to put the question of the hour (if you don’t count 2020) into some kind of context.

As an attempt to inject some life into the panel session format it deserves praise and the conceit pretty much worked. It certainly made for a diverting hour or so of back and forth between (broadly) the shipowners who backed the motion that the industry is not ready and the technologists, who believe it is.

If the make-up of the opposing panels threatened to make the debate a simple case of handbags at dawn, then the constituents of the audience with a strong bias to shipping management and operations might have done the same. But since the question would be put to a public vote, the result could be very different from what we might have expected.

Speaking for the motion, Khalid Hashim, Managing Director of Precious Shipping pointed out the gulf between the promise and the here and now. How many of the audience worked for organisations that had achieved digitalisation he asked? The show of hands was predictably small.

“Lack of investment is delaying adoption and many owners say big data has no major part to play in their operations,” he added, pointing out with tongue-in-cheek that the industry could not be ready for the future if it chose to assess the subject using the centuries-old format of a parliamentary debate. “The challenges are so many; safety, manning and seaworthiness, the master’s role, insurance and legal not to mention the regulatory changes that will be needed.”

Replying first, Rene Kofod-Olsen, CEO, Topaz Energy Marine, argued that the opportunity was clear not least for its positive impact on the supply chain. “Knowing vessel locations brings certainty to cargo delivery, can reduce manpower and drive down costs,” he suggested. “Access to vessel and engine performance data brings an unprecedented level of transparency and a proactive approach to maintenance that means we can move towards being fully condition-based”.

There is more than improvements to processes to be gained he said, suggesting that a data-driven approach to risk management can improve environmental protection and safety; “monitoring in real time assets, commodities and people. This technology can also deliver a better crew experience closing the gap between offshore and onshore jobs”.

For Ali Shehab Ahmad, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Kuwait Oil Tanker Company, the problem was not one of opportunity but of ability to take advantage and for that he placed the blame squarely at the door of OEMs and service providers.

“They are not doing enough to help shipping digitalise; why should owners and operators invest in connectivity when it is so costly,” he asked. Owners have so little money to spend that when they elect to invest millions of dollars in newbuildings, “they go with the most basic design and not the gadgets. Owners cannot afford anything other than cheapest price so the ship is built to the bare minimum,” he suggested, apparently without irony.

Oskar Levandar SVP of Concepts and Innovation at Rolls-Royce Marine has been one of smart shipping’s trouble-makers for some years now and was as positive on the merits as ever. Look at smart shipping as a big toolbox, he suggested; there is something in there for everybody.

“It creates so much value and benefit you cannot ignore it and the market demand is there, we experience it every day. Yes, remote autonomous ships are a few years away but we are on the verge; it is happening in coastal shipping and already spinning out solutions such as intelligent awareness on the bridge that provides value straight away,” he said.

The pro-smart wave then encountered an obstacle in the shape of Captain David Stockley, COO, Oman Shipping Company who cheerfully admitted that his aim was “to try to stop this march towards smart shipping, an IT revolution and autonomous ships and bring some sense to the debate,” to immediate applause it must be said.

The problem he said was the industry having foisted upon it technology it didn’t ask for and which is too unreliable for the tasks it is asked to perform. As a result, the cost of service contracts required to keep modern ships running was spinning out of control.

“Why has this happened? Did we ask for this? No we didn’t. Let’s talk about a two year old LNG carrier that broke down in the breakwaters and has broken down 30 times since, but no-one can tell us why or a five year-old VLCC with 150 guarantee claims on its control systems from major Norwegian supplier or another LNG carrier that will need $300,000 to upgrade its PC network.”

Even allowing for some generosity between what counts as innovation and what is maintenance, much of the room felt he had a point and he poured scorn on the idea of navigating remotely when trying to handle a large ship in a storm. “Those videos should be in the comedy section of YouTube,” he added.

The last comment fell to Drew Brandy, SVP Maritime Market Strategy, Inmarsat, who has made a career of quietly putting the case for connectivity while working for a company that many still love to hate. We should, he said, start with a basic premise that internet connectivity enables vessels to operate more smartly with all the potential benefit that brings.

“The motion is broader than a decision about industry readiness to embrace smart shipping,” he suggested. “It’s a fundamental decision to reject progress, the very progress that is synonymous with operational efficiency competitive advantage and advanced decision-making.”

The shipping industry was ready and yes, providers have a responsibility have a responsibility to improve an industry that is so vital to our way of life and the industry was already embracing the change. “What I will concede is that we must do this collectively, we must do more to change,” he concluded.

All good knockabout stuff and in the open session that followed, it seemed that the proposers had the advantage, particularly by tying smart shipping to autonomous systems, a subject that appeared to gather general opprobrium.

And then it was time for the vote. How would the delegates respond to a campaign marked on the one hand by bluster, soundbites and recalcitrance on the one hand and quiet insistence on the other? It seemed a foregone conclusion but when the hands went up it was a squeaker, causing some consternation among the people whose job it was to count each vote.

And the result? The assembled company believed that the industry is ready to embrace smart shipping. By a single, solitary vote.