Riding the connectivity wave from tradition to innovation

May 23, 2018

Based on his huge influence on communications, inventor of the radio Guglielmo Marconi founded two main companies in maritime radio, Societa’ Italiana Radio Marittima (SIRM) in Italy in 1927 and Marconi International, now SIRM UK.

The two are these days unified under the SIRM brand, enabling CEO Luca de Cesare to reflect that “we have been operating in this market since radio was born. We were founded on strong competencies for the scope of our business.”

That scope reflects the fact that shipping operations are becoming digital and that technology innovation is pushing more strongly into the traditionally conservative maritime market.

“What’s more traditional or conservative than maritime, than navigation? It’s all about tradition. But innovation is knocking at the door and is something that the clients have to face and can manage because the ships are getting more and more connected, as well as the all the industries” he says. “So we want to be ready for the next wave, and we want to leverage our centennial expertise combined with IT competencies in order to provide new and innovative services.”

In a market of increasingly consolidated suppliers, De Cesare stresses SIRM’s flexibility in customising solutions to client needs using an industrial model. “So far our experience is that our agility is much more effective because at the end of the day we have the ability to align our investment path to the client needs so we can adapt and put specific attention towards each one.”

SIRM built its internal software solutions development centre pulling together all the right talents – ICT and software engineers – available within the company and the parent group or even from the market. This way the company has been able to move from a project-based early approach to industrialised product development, enabling innovation while also controlling cost. SIRM’s aim is to improve the traditional model, where the supplier provides a solution developed for other clients via a long decision-making chain, with a steady stream of solutions that naturally allows for customisation.

He observes a trend towards acceptance by owners that spending on IT and telecommunication can be leveraged to improve safety and operational efficiency, rather than simply generating costs. Still, it is hard to reconcile the 1-2% of daily vessel OPEX that communications represents with the resistance of owners to invest more to achieve greater efficiency.

“It’s quite clear to management in other industries such as automotive, telecommunications, banks or other enterprises that IT and telecommunication costs are an investment rather just a pure cost. It’s changing in the maritime industry, hopefully with an ever-faster pace.”

Even so, the ‘push’ of digital is irresistible and he says shipping is understanding more and more that IT and telecommunications are tools with which they can gain control and understanding of their business. “The main request from the market, from the client, is to get control of their fleet and their operations as ultimately the core business of the ship companies is effectively and efficiently operating their fleets.”

Every tool that lets them better understand how the fleet is operating day to day as well as in the medium term in terms key performance indicators (think for example fuel consumption, CO2 emissions, near misses/accidents, etc) is a useful increase in their awareness and in their effectiveness of managing the fleet “on time and on budget”, he says.

De Cesare is also a believer in the idea that since maritime transportation has a major relevance within transportation industry, shipping plays a crucial role in the wider logistics chain and as a consequence improving forecasting and planning abilities becomes a key factor. This is particularly true in the case of cargo lines whose customers are becoming more interested in understanding company performance against predicted schedules.

“This is not exactly a science but it is something that you have to manage. And the usual dialogue between the officers on board and the operation centre on shore can be much more effective if there is a common base of information and knowledge in real time shared between the two parties,” he adds.

For the lines themselves, the concept of sharing data between onboard and shoreside operation centres can be a support to safety as well as a driver to efficiency and De Cesare thinks even towards managing the costs of compliance.

“If a shipping company has the tools and knowledge to share with insurers and class in order to show them that they have under control their fleet and they know how the fleet is running every day, they might be able to claim for better prices, for lower premiums, or they can start a discussion in order to show this to them. This was one of the drivers that interested our shipping customers.”

SIRM provides its services through FleetOnCloud, a complete suite of solutions which includes three main macro-modules, FoC Follower for vessel tracking, Data Insights for analysis and BridgeView for remote bridge monitoring. The modules are brought together via the SIRM ‘READYBOX’ which connects to the various sensors around the ship and then shares that data back to shore using the preferred communications channel. Plans are advancing for a partnership with GNS that will make these tools available to VOYAGER customers.

Running pilots and test beds with shipping companies has enabled SIRM to demonstrate the opportunities for value, but the process continues. With one user, gathering data on routes and schedules and putting this together with precise weather and wave conditions demonstrated potential fuel savings comfortably above 5%.

“When that happens owners very quickly come back and say, ‘OK I want this’ because they can demonstrate that value to their customers too. In terms of safety, having the SIRM BridgeView onboard gives the shoreside teams the ability to continue monitoring the ship’s performance even if the crew are focussed on an issue onboard,” he adds.

De Cesare accepts there is a broad range of ambition in shipping. Many clients are open to innovation and understand that they need such tools in order to improve safety and efficiency. There are some that don’t consider this immediately, but in the middle are those that can be convinced by seeing the advantages demonstrated in a practical way.

He thinks the market has become more engaged in the space of a couple of years and that being connected drives a much wider behavioural change: once owners have started to use new tools, issues such as satellite bandwidth quickly fade away.

“When they can use that bandwidth to gather and share data that has value for them, they then don’t consider the communications costs as strongly. In a way it’s typical of early-stage industry adoption. Ten years ago, we would have been much more careful about the cost of phone calls. Now it’s a commodity that we cannot live without and we spend more on it because we can value its advantages. The paradigm shift in shipping is similar.”