Navigating Technology

Technology is reshaping the marine industry. Over the next decade or so, new technologies promise to completely transform shipping: an industry that is the engine of 90% of global trade.

Navigating Technology

Having been involved in the maritime industry for more than 9 years, one thing became obvious to myself. Maritime industry is severely lacking in adapting to technological changes compared to many other major industries. Although things are improving in recent years, maritime industry is still generally off the pace compared to industrial trendsetters.

Shipping industry play a crucial role in the global economy, given that ships carry around 90 percent of world trade by volume, with the total amount having more than tripled since 1970. However the way these ships operate have remained practically the same with the exception of some world leading companies who have implemented great modernization initiative.

Why the delay?

There are still some prevailing mindset among many maritime professionals that technological adoption is something unnecessary. Usually these resistance originate from experienced people who have been in the industry for a few decades. I believe many sea going professionals will resonate with my statement that technological advancement is seen by the old guards as a threat to their position in the industry. However, this is not the only reason. There are many other factors involved such as cost effectiveness, safety and reliability of such technology. Nonetheless, as with any industry, adaptation is a must to ensure survival in an extremely competitive market. We shouldn't discourage adaptation to technological advancement, rather much greater focus should be given to implementing them and providing necessary tools and training to the workforce in ensuring optimum workflow.

The only way forward.  

The way that I see it, there are three major components of technological adaptation in maritime industry: Unmanned ships, smart shipping and green technology.

Unmanned ships.

The commercial argument for unmanned operation appears to be unclear. There will be savings in operational expenditure by stripping vessels of their crew. However these savings must be weighed against new expenditures, for example, establishing new shore based infrastructure or the additional ongoing expense of fewer but more highly qualified personnel to operate and maintain the new robotic tonnage. The 25-30 year lifespan of a commercial ship creates additional challenges. The problem of technology obsolescence is already an issue, and given the pace at which technology evolves compared to machinery systems and established vessel refurbishment intervals, this situation is likely to deteriorate before long-term remedial strategies can be found.

Smart shipping.

Light Technology under display at the Miraikan museum of emerging science and innovation in Tokyo
Adoption of smart technologies is a must in this day and age.

Multiple industry such as manufacturing and production industry have already transition to smart processes. However the opposite is observed in maritime industry as many operators are taking a “wait and see” approach, preferring to let other players take the initiative. Improving margins is a strong driver in the adoption of smart shipping and not surprisingly it was evidenced that a key challenge for any shipowner considering data centric operation is to measure a baseline level of performance against which the output from any newly introduced system can be assessed and evaluated. Those taking a more proactive stance are increasing training in information and communications technology (ICT) for staff working at sea and on shore, thus paving the way for a gradual transition to a more data centric mode of operation. Others are still conducting preliminary research into the available solutions and doing trials, with a view to exploiting the benefits of data gathering and analysis in the near future; and/or are specifying equipment that can allow data to be ‘switched on’ at a later date, thus future proofing their operations. Adoption of Internet of Things and other digitalization initiative is still to be seen. This is the major area where I believe maritime industry should have been far ahead than it is now. There is no denial that measures such as using digital platforms and computerized system will reduce cost, increase efficiency and ensures reliability with reduced safety concern.

The overall impact of smart shipping isn’t expected to affect the size of crew and technical support teams, however it will affect the skills and competencies needed in the occupation.

Green Technology.

The priority for most vessel operators is to ensure they stay up to date and in compliance with environmental regulation. This can be onerous when vessels must be prepared to sail in waters covered by differing regional as well as global rules. Its a no brainer that usage of technology should be implemented in this area. The cost of any environmental incident far outweighs the investment in green technology. When considering the adoption of green technologies some took a near term perspective, preferring that priority is given to proven solutions such as LNG or solving the challenges posed by imminent regulatory change, in particular, IMO’s global cap on Sulphur content in ship fuel. Others considered a medium term horizon, with particular emphasis on pushing the development of energy storage (batteries and fuel cells) and hybrid power arrangements. Whichever way we look at it, one thing remains clear. We must start somewhere.

Wind Energy
There are big opportunity for green technologies in maritime industry

What should we do now?

International collaboration is essential for effective action in many of these technological areas. However individual players in the industry should adopt technological advancement in their very own organization as much as possible. Simple solutions such as usage of software based management and document control should be applied. Data gathering for improved maintenance planning and emission control should also be prioritize. These aspects are well proven to reduce the cost of operation and increases efficiency of a shipping company.