The elephant in the engine room

4 min read
17 Jul 2022

An integrated approach to data-driven decision making delivers benefits far beyond engine optimisation and route planning, according to a new guide from Wärtsilä Voyage. 

Like the tale of the blind men examining an elephant – is it a snake, a horse, a tree trunk, a wall – data means different things depending on where you look for it. Some data sets are about engines and machinery, others hold the key to efficient and safe navigation. When you consider the cost of transmitting and storing that data securely, as well as the increased burden on crew and shore teams to learn and use multiple data platforms, it’s no surprise that shipping companies choose to focus their efforts on distinct, business-critical areas and ignore the rest.  

But this old-fashioned approach is no longer good enough. Underpinned by more mature connectivity and less onerous hardware requirements, data is becoming more accessible which means it can–and should–be used to its full potential. According to Alexey Pirozhnikov, Senior Director, Connected Marine, Wärtsilä Voyage, several factors are converging to prepare shipping for a more integrated approach to digital solutions. 

Ready for data

“We see that many vessels today are being built ready for data handling, with the wiring already in place for connected systems,” says Pirozhnikov. “At the same time, new regulations like IMO’s Carbon Intensity Indicator are putting the onus on ship operators to monitor vessel performance more effectively.” 

There are still obstacles to be overcome. The often-competing interests of owners, operators and charterers remain, although Pirozhnikov believes they will be gradually (and most probably, partially) converged, given new emission regulations and the transparency they will demand on vessel performance. And, given the long life of ships, there are still plenty of vessels sailing today with relatively low readiness for digital systems. The good news is that ‘hardware light’ or software-only solutions that can bring data collection and analysis to older vessels are emerging. 


We need to be able to integrate data systems onto a vessel using whatever is already there. With our Fleet Optimisation Solution, we have built a system around software services and APIs for easy installation on any vessel.

- Alexey Pirozhnikov, Senior Director, Connected Marine, Wärtsilä Voyage

A simple installation does not mean limited functionality. Wärtsilä Voyage’s Fleet Optimisation Solution (FOS) taps into one or multiple vessel systems, usually starting with the mandatory ECDIS used on every ship bridge. The result is a comprehensive software that offers a wide scope of optimisation possibilities across the entire fleet, as opposed to solutions that are limited to a single, narrowly defined area such as fuel optimisation, equipment condition, voyage routing or emissions compliance. 

Seven key benefits 

A single platform that can use all vessel data and combine it with external information sources is a crucial tool for enabling a wide range of decisions. To help ship owners and operators to see the potential more clearly, a new guide from Wärtsilä Voyage outlines seven key benefits of data-driven decision making. 

Compliance and futureproofing: IMO’s Carbon Intensity Indicator is just one impending regulation that will require ship operators to monitor their vessel’s environmental performance and, where necessary, make adaptations. Beyond monitoring and forecasting emissions based on vessel, equipment and voyage attributes, data can allow proactive decision-making to achieve cost-effective compliance. 

Transparency and accountability: Often linked to compliance is the need for visibility of ship data across multiple stakeholders. Whether reporting emissions, evidencing charterparty compliance or ensuring best practices onboard, the ability see relevant data in real time both on the vessel and on shore is a critical element. Transparency becomes even more important as the demand for more robust and quick-reacting logistics grows. 

Timely decisions for optimum operations: What businesses need can change from one moment in the next in shipping, whether it is maintaining low emissions, reaching the next port in time or optimising route to avoid poor weather. Ship data from multiple sources needs to be accessible and comparable in order for operators to set priorities and take the most effective action for achieving business goals. 

Ability to track iterative change: Ship data is the ultimate learning tool. It provides a detailed historical record that can help evaluate the impact of any changes to how a fleet or individual vessels are operated. Whether aiming to cut fuel consumption, navigate more safely or maximise fleet utilisation, data helps review and evaluate the impact of the decisions operators take to achieve their targets. 

Feedback loops support shipping’s data evolution: Machine learning means that today’s analytics tools are self-improving. The bigger the data diet, the better they become at identifying, validating and analysing the relevant information. Data systems not only assist decision making, but also continuously improve their ability to offer decision-making support. 

Teamwork makes the data dream work: The true power of today’s software algorithms is that they make recommendations that can then be analysed and interpreted, blending software insights with human reasoning. The transparency afforded by shared data and connectivity brings a wide range of knowledge and expertise to bear on the challenges operators face in optimising their operations, with project managers, analysts, technology innovators and subject matter experts all contributing to data-driven decisions.  

Unlocking commercial upsides: In a competitive and capital-driven market, shipping needs to find every means possible to cut wastage and maximise efficiency. By using data to find cost savings, businesses can also free up money to reinvest that will reap even greater benefits. 

Capability and scalability

Pirozhnikov notes that the wide capabilities of FOS – with optimisation functions across vessel performance, voyage management, navigational safety, compliance and many other areas – bring all these benefits within reach. And the scalability afforded by software-driven systems means those advantages can be reaped with relatively low investment. 

A holistic approach to data-driven decision making is the next step on the road to digitalisation, moving away from isolated optimisation efforts towards fleet or ecosystem wide benefits. Further down the road, Pirozhnikov expects that the insights offered by data management systems will become increasingly automated, further reducing the time and resources needed to make sound decisions. 

Data: an asset for change

There is also future potential for high frequency data collection to enable even more granular insights, amassed and driven by Internet of Things (IoT). The challenging issue of measuring hull fouling and planning for optimal cleaning is one area that could benefit. With analysis of high-frequency data on fuel consumption and speed, combined with input from navigational systems to identify other variables, decisions can be taken based on the fuel penalty of not cleaning the hull, the vessel itinerary, and the cost and availability of cleaning facilities. Another area is machine (engine) performance, where IoT-generated insights aid in analysis of optimal usage and predictive maintenance. 

Those future features will be built upon the platforms that shipping companies choose today. To unlock that potential and the benefits that can already be gained from data-driven decision making, shipping companies need solutions that allow them to see not just specific areas for optimisation, but the whole elephant that is the data gathered from their bridge and engine room. 

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