Big IT: How Fast, How Far Will IT Drive Maritime?

By Steve Driver

The IT industry doesn’t like to stand still. Upgrades, updates, new versions and enhanced functionality are released on a regular basis. New services are enabled, bottlenecks eliminated, more joined up operations enabled. The underlying platform remains the same but, over time, its capabilities evolve and stretch to meet changing expectations.
But then, every so often, something far more dramatic comes along. We are experiencing one of these more dramatic periods at the moment. The latest technology trends – the impact of mobile, the power of Big Data, the possibilities of the Internet of Things (IoT), the demands of interoperability – aren’t about tweaking, enhancing existing systems and solutions, or adopting incremental upgrades. Instead they are creating whole new meaning from business activity and transforming our understanding of what can be achieved.
The opportunities for forward-thinking companies are immense, and the maritime sector is no exception. Systems that help manage physical assets for example are prone to exactly the same transformative trends as the latest start-ups coming out of Silicon Valley. Old certainties are being questioned and enticing new possibilities are being considered. When looking to review or upgrade systems, maritime operators should also consider solutions that will deliver the new technology.

Specialization or Cross Fertilization

One of the biggest questions being asked is how far industry specialization offers value. In the maritime industry, every system must be class approved. That’s clearly not negotiable. But after that, the benefits of a system that is focused solely on maritime but does not draw on other industrial sectors and influences is less clear.
The bare minimum for an asset management system must be that it gives organizations control over physical assets by collecting and sharing information on reliability, maintenance, inventory, resources and personnel, and by disseminating and enforcing best operational practice over the lifetime of the asset. Inevitably, in a maritime environment, the difficulties of ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship connectivity are extensive, and so some form of a robust data replication capability is needed. The availability of data is increasingly relevant as more and more devices that can be remotely monitored are attached to the network and produce ever-more data for analysis.
But the need for data availability is shared by a number of industries: offshore drilling in the oil and gas business, remote exploration by mining companies and even long-haul fleet managers need advanced systems that help them manage plant, production, infrastructure, facilities, transportation and communications in far-from-easy circumstances.
Data often needs to be examined by off-site managers or geographically spread teams in as close to real time as possible, without the ‘always on’ connectivity that less mobile industries enjoy. In this sense, there is huge advantage in using software that shares best technology practice: the need for replication mastered by shipping operators can apply to offshore drilling platforms; the role of technology in managing health, safety and environment by drilling operators can offer significant benefit to maritime businesses facing ever-closer scrutiny in these areas.
These highly regulated industries also tend to share the rugged environmental conditions that characterize the maritime industry. The demands of an offshore drilling platform are at least comparable if not identical to those in commercial shipping. Again, best practice on managing maintenance schedules, for example, can be shared to mutual advantage. Selecting systems developed with knowledge gained from serving a variety of industrial sectors enables maritime fleet operators to benefit from this shared expertise. Seen in this light, the focus on software that comes solely from within a single sector appears limiting.
We are already seeing this type of expertise sharing across a number of commercial sectors outside heavy industry. Apple is bringing its particular expertise to retail transactions and payments business, for example. Intel is getting involved in watchmaking. Amazon is using its retail platform to become a significant player in cloud provision. Similar levels of cross-fertilization and knowledge share can help develop best practice among the maritime and other industrial sectors who have similar problems to solve.
It’s also worth noting that software suppliers who are embedded in many industrial sectors, and who have significant investment programmes in those sectors, can deliver greater benefit to maritime operators. It’s the same principal as the automobile industry, where cars built in small numbers with limited markets often lack the latest features and can be less reliable than more popular models backed by significant investment from manufacturers. In the same way, software developers that draw on wide-ranging expertise and user feedback produce robust, reliable solutions that meet actual need.

Integration and Interoperability
Asset management software that shares expertise from many sectors extends the pool of ‘best of breed’ technologies from which industries can draw. But it’s not the only form of sharing that is available. Another of the big trends now dominating the IT sector is the use of APIs to link together separate systems to create a more seamless whole. Vendors are also making specialist modules readily available to their core product to create a more flexible and scalable solution.
For example, as a standalone system, an asset management solution provides an important, even necessary function. When it shares information with and responds to data from supply chain systems, finance applications, enterprise resource planning (ERP) then that functionality is significantly enhanced. It means the time and resources required to provide an end-to-end asset management, maintenance and monitoring function are much reduced. It also ensures that the business can better understand the full impact of any change in routing, for example, or the true opportunity cost of taking a vessel out of operation.
Equally, technologies that support health, safety and environment monitoring, or risk and liability management, for example, can be added on to an asset management system, as can management of change (MoC) and incident management (IM) modules. Maritime operators using systems with all these capabilities included have already seen a reduction in the total cost of technology ownership, as well as efficiency improvements to their operations.

Bigger and Bigger Data

The third big trend that has almost come to dominate the IT industry is that of big data – and again it has positive implications for forward-looking maritime operators who can discover, release, process and analyse vast amounts of data from their operations. This data can be transformed into invaluable information and insight into even the most obscure areas of activity. With greater business intelligence available, remaining traces of guesswork or assumptions are being eliminated from the decision-making process.
Now that the data genie is out of the bottle, all kinds of possibilities are opening up. One of the more interesting for the maritime industry is the move from planned to predictive and proactive maintenance.
A typical maintenance schedule might involve a regular and predetermined plan to strip down an asset, overhauling it and putting it back into service. For a diesel generator engine running for 6,000 hours a year, the manufacturer’s manual will typically recommend an overhaul at 16,000 hours. The frequency is based on observation over time, convenience and necessary risk aversion. But with the right analytics capabilities in place, the maintenance schedule can be finely tuned to match the actual demands of the individual engine. It could, for example, run for an additional 4,000 hours before a maintenance overhaul. This just-in-time maintenance capability results in a much more efficient use of spares, time and resources. Multiplied over an entire fleet it can produce a significant cost saving.

The Internet of Things

These are all significant and transformative technology trends. But the biggest disruptor of all is the Internet of Things – which itself is set to increase the volume of data available by order of magnitude.
In the industrial sector, the possibilities opened up by attached intelligent sensors to ‘things’ – devices, plant or equipment that until now have not been computerized or part of a data network – connecting them together, extracting previously unavailable information and analyzing it, often without human intervention, is the future of computing. Analysts at IDC predict that approximately 212 billion connected “things” will be installed worldwide by the end of 2020.
What this means for the maritime industry is that ships could be become self-contained floating networks, transformed by analytics, machine learning, and self-healing capabilities. In the future, engineers won’t need to proactively monitor data to find out whether maintenance is need after 3,000 or 4,000 hours. The ship will tell them. The kind of insight provided by these newly intelligent vessels not only creates huge efficiencies in the operation of each ship, but can help optimise the way that almost every aspect of the business is run.
Again, shared experience comes into play for those software companies embracing the IoT. Tha t experience and the pace of new software will help the maritime industry simplify the collection, analysis and insight of its operational data.

Data Assurance and Deployment

With significant benefits to be gained from the ability to collect and analyze a variety of data, the means of deployment also comes under the spotlight. There’s little to be gained from analyzing asset telemetry data for trends if the data-set is incomplete because different parts of the organization are on different versions of the software.
Systems based on web technology overcome this problem and give fleet operators a greater ability to respond quickly and easily to the increasing pace of technological change and software releases. Instead of deploying a series of system upgrades to individual operating locations, web-based technology enables these operators to install a new version to all sites from a single, central location – which makes it easier to ensure the benefits of the new technology are being seamlessly adopted.

The Blueprint for the Future
It is hard to overstate the nature of the changes taking place in IT capabilities right now, or the effect they will have on businesses that choose to engage with them. We’ve already seen the need for mobile capabilities, diverse availability models that include software as a service (SaaS), and greater use of private and public clouds, but the step-change ahead is of a much greater magnitude.
However, the possibility of a more streamlined and less hazardous operation and the potential to create a more efficient and cost-effective business will only be realized if the asset management system and other core platforms have these forward-looking capabilities built in. Any upgrade of technology has to be made with an eye on a very different IT future.
It’s no longer about nice-to-have features or simply greater performance and throughput. The opportunity is there to completely rethink what asset management platforms could be capable of, assess what different vendors can offer over the long term, and envision a truly IT-enabled maritime business.
At this point in the IT cycle, an upgrade is no longer just an upgrade. It is the start of a complete business transformation.

The Author
Steve Driver is Managing Director of SRO Solutions Ltd. As a qualified marine engineer, Steve has spent most of his career in the marine & offshore sector, helping organizations develop and implement their use of various IT systems. He set up SRO Solutions, a Gold accredited IBM Maximo business partner, in 2005.


(As published in the November 2015 edition of Maritime Reporter & Engineering News -

Maritime Reporter Magazine, page 38,  Nov 2015

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