Salt and silicon: Integrating the old and new to optimise shipping

As shipping brings new solutions to bear on its challenges, some long-held maritime concepts need to be safeguarded – and others jettisoned.

Few industries are as rich in tradition as shipping. One result is the ceremonies and superstitions that persist today, for example, wasting good champagne against a new ship’s hull. But for every arcane custom there is a historical convention grounded in practicality. Today, some of these long-held ideas are being challenged as new technologies and new business demands drive a search for better solutions. 

The absolute authority of the captain is one example of a maritime concept that is being actively challenged. Greater connectivity between ship and shore means that captains can receive information - and instruction – from land-based management. That brings significant benefits in terms of safety and fleet coordination, but also has some unwelcome consequences. One is the workload of the captain, as the volume of administrative tasks increase in line with ease of communication. 

The evolution of the captain’s role, from master of his domain to a leading shoreside’s representative onboard, highlights the dangers of digitalisation when implemented piecemeal. Without an integrated approach, new solutions can increase complexity, add to crew burden and pose potential risks if captains and their crew are fatigued. The idea of voyages supported from the shore – and of vessels feeding back data that can be used to improve operations - is welcome, but unless they ease the crew’s burden, such systems will create further issues for operators to face. 

A holistic and integrated approach is also essential for maximising the benefits of digital technologies, says Alexander Ozersky, Wärtsilä Head of Engineering Intellectual Geospatial Services. He takes the long-established division between engineering and bridge crew – another outdated maritime concept – as an example.

Unifying the operating environment

“Traditionally the bridge and engine room use separate systems. But that doesn’t work when it comes to optimising efficiency. The bridge officers need to understand how optimal use the vessel’s power can help plan efficient voyages, and engineers needs visibility of navigation to understand how to operate the engines optimally. They don’t need the same tools, but they do need to operate in the same digital environment.” 

Breaking down these information silos is where the real value of digital tools becomes evident – whether between ship and shore or bridge and engine room. Electronic chart displays (ECDIS) are one example of how this can work. ECDIS is now mandatory on all vessels, and by itself provides a useful tool for safer navigation and reducing the chance of fatigue among bridge crew. But even greater benefits can be realised by putting ECDIS at the heart of an integrated navigation system that pulls in route planning as well as data sources across the ship and beyond. 

This is the logic behind Wärtsilä’s Fleet Optimisation Solution (FOS). With sophisticated analysis and smart data logging, FOS can integrate relevant navigational, operational and other data to offer a range of optimisation functions. The advantages of this holistic approach extend far beyond voyage and performance optimisation. Combining and analysing the multiple data streams enable features included automated compliance reporting, emissions and fuel optimisation, near miss reporting and full visibility into ship operations from anywhere on the vessel or on shore. 

There is another reason why piecemeal solutions that are not properly integrated can cause problems as well as solving them. Ozersky notes the inevitable trade-off between competing aspects of ship operations.

The safest vessel is the one that stays in port. In a way, anything beyond that adds risk. It may not be what people want to hear, but it’s the same with balancing safety and efficiency; people focusing on one too much can lose sight of the other.

- Alexander Ozersky, Wärtsilä Head of Engineering Intellectual Geospatial Services, Wärtsilä Voyage

An integrated system like FOS can help keep priorities in balance. This is as much about the design of the user experience as the features the system offers. Easy-to-use interfaces that give the right information at the right time help to reduce crew workload. Safety features that have proved particularly valuable include the FOS Tracking & Awareness module, which offers operators the ability to playback vessel incidents, significantly improving training and incident investigations.

A voyage of learning

“In aviation they say that every flight is a learning flight; it should be the same in shipping,” Ozersky suggests. “We’ve had customers who thought that they tracked near misses well and, when they installed FOS, this function has been a game-changer even for them.” 

The capabilities brought by an integrated navigation and optimisation system can also help dispel some other outdated maritime concepts. The fabled resilience of seafarers, much tested during the COVID pandemic, has been relied on for too long. The workload and conditions that demand that resilience can be dramatically improved by automating administrative tasks as much as possible, improving situational awareness and by making ship operations safer – without compromising the efficiency that all operators seek. 

Filling in the noon report and ship logbook are examples of simple tasks, still largely performed manually today, that are ripe for further automation. As well as allowing crew to focus on other more critical operational tasks, the data and insights gleaned by digitising these sources would be vast. 

Looking to the future, a well-constructed digital network has even more potential to improve vessel operation on a fleet level, further dispelling the idea of a vessel as an isolated and self-sufficient entity. Ozersky notes that the global fleet comprises an incredible number of sensors with increasingly capable connectivity. As well as their location, speed, fuel use and emissions, many thousands of vessels record weather and ocean data. Harnessing this vast network of sensors could bring valuable knowledge about ship operations and operating conditions. Beyond shipping, it could offer deep insights for those charting and studying the oceans. 

The key to harnessing the opportunity of digitalisation lies in maintaining the best of the old familiar ways of operating while using new technology to integrate all the data available, driving better insights to enhance both safety and efficiency. For a safety-critical industry, where sound operational practices have evolved over hundreds of years, there is every reason for shipping to approach digitalisation with caution. But where breaking tradition means building a safer environment for seafarers and a more sustainable business, innovation should not be overlooked. 

Written by
Wärtsilä Voyage

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