What's coming next and why it matters
With no end in sight to the crew change crisis and uncertainty surrounding the return to whatever normality looks like in future, the shipping industry finds itself in a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Just as more remote working will define the next decade and more for millions of people, the era of automation and integration is breaking over shipping.
This is not to advocate for replacing crews with computers – the industry’s connection to people is a strong one and removing them on anything but very specialist vessels may not be advisable, even if it proves possible.
What is changing is the need for cleaner, faster and higher volumes of data to be available to the crew and shore without human intervention. At the same time, regulatory compliance is moving faster towards a process of verification with data and procedures that lend themselves to ever greater automation.
In a scenario in which some crew have been unable to leave their vessels and those that can join ships are doing so with less experience, there is a clear need to migrate more processes online. Where this can be done using software and systems it can provide a greater level of transparency but it can also deliver a much higher degree of efficiency.
Though the volume of data transferred from ship to shore has increased rapidly in recent years, in practice the process is still fragmented, with data packets often having to be reassembled onboard ship after transmission.
This creates a higher risk of errors and that mariners may not have the data they need at critical points in the voyage. There is also an issue for the shoreside that though the passage plan is known and approved in advance, it may not be possible to know that the vessel is sticking to the agreed route – or at best receive updates on position and fuel consumption once a day.
For a long time bridge processes were determinedly physical and defined the roles of mariners. The rapid pace of change in new technology has simply left shipping and to some extent mariners behind. The fact also remains that it makes more sense to have seafarers focus on things that machines don’t do well and there are still plenty of those.
As the world has moved on to a continuous stream of data, for news, weather conditions, risk, political events, the shipping industry has remained a decade or more behind. Visitors to the bridge of a newbuilding might be surprised by the combination of old and new technology, often for regulatory reasons.
Regulation has tended to be the primary driver to technology adoption including connectivity because unless something can make a bottom line or efficiency contribution it will struggle to achieve internal approval. However, regulation also represents a serious risk to owners and crew because if data and information are not collected and presented correctly then the ship may not sail.
The chance that fingers will be pointed if something goes wrong naturally encourages crew to be conservative but the far better option would be to remove the responsibility of remembering from humans and program software with collecting the data and feed it where it is needed. For compliance it should be possible to use systems to present inspectors with a dashboard view that removes the need for crew to intervene unless there is an emergency.
So, the automation trend is accelerating but it still requires a safe transition and in particular understanding and acknowledging when data is received and changes have been made. The humans on the bridge need to be informed and updated and able to inspect that information when needed.
Do this well and we could see the kind of exception-based reporting used in other parts of the logistics chain. Rather than constantly alert mariners to background processes, a system could be designed to alert them when there is an issue.
Better design of workflows can also encourage automation, provided that there is a good enough interface to display the data to anyone who requires access. It should also be possible to pull out more data on an ad hoc basis for analysis on the fly.
What is true onboard ship is true ashore too; smaller teams with heavier workloads whose clients expect to be able to contact them at any time. Sometimes this needs a conversation – sometimes video – but plenty of interactions can be automated into alerts that can be pushed to the person responsible in a way that supports remote working.
The same proactive posture can be used for alerting both shore and ship if they need to understand when data or publications are coming close to renewal so that they can even manage compliance ahead of schedule.
What is absolutely clear is that when major incidents happen, the impact on attitudes to technology can be profound. We have seen all too clearly in recent weeks the terrible impact of thinking you know where your vessel is and the reality.
If an owner can understand ahead of time that their asset is heading into bad weather, or has diverted from its voyage plan or is consuming more fuel than normal then alarm bells can ring sooner rather than later.