From small steps to giant leaps: digitalisation on the bridge

From small steps to giant leaps: digitalisation on the bridge

History and heritage are not enough to protect anyone from the challenge of digitalisation, but change need not be a threat to survival, writes Jan Thordan Hansen from Sperry Marine.

Digitalisation is throwing up daily challenges to the shipping industry’s established order with faster connectivity and enhanced functionality driving the transparency of information flow.

Shipping is embracing this effect – and cautiously welcoming the disrupters too – and speed of adoption is quickening. What is still developing is how to apply this thinking to a traditional business-to-business market where the speed of technology adoption needs to fit market cycles.

What the advocates of smart shipping have recognised is that product-oriented organisations cannot adhere to 20th century business models of research-develop-build-sell-repeat and expect to thrive in the longer term.

A sustainable digital business is one that focusses on the customer first and invites a new conversation about their needs and how products and services fit around that. This can be a challenging process for organisations which have happily relied on selling hardware for decades, even if their origins lie in the invention and popularisation of such equipment.

It is doubly true when the area of operation is not purely commercial or concerned with fuel savings or schedule keeping, but the regulated safety space on the bridge. The requirement for type approved, standards-based systems for navigation safety are a far cry from an app-based efficiency gain or drone-based spare parts delivery.

For a company that has navigation systems in its DNA, it has become a natural extension for us to think about what digitalisation can do for customers; more and more of them are working to improve connectivity on the bridge and from bridge to shore.

The data on demand model is quickly being replaced by real time monitoring of ship systems and customers are already exploring the benefits of a richer data stream that can enhance safety and efficiency of ship operations.

There are several elements to this strategy, the first will centre around gathering data to analyse system performance and better plan servicing and maintenance of the bridge system.

Digital updates for the electronic chart display are already happening but there is a need to improve the procedure for getting the data into the navigation system. Rather than rely on thumb drives for transfer, there should be an independently-hosted back of bridge system with a secure connection to the front of bridge. We will also employ the same secure data stream to deploy software updates and patches directly into the bridge system when the vessel is alongside and on voyage.

Finally, we can use the data to improve visibility from shore, such as for a port authority or vessel operations centre and so support mariners on berth approach or manoeuvring operations.

This will act as an accelerator for autonomous vessel technology but it needs to be managed in a way that increases safety and efficiency. We think that customers, rather than vendors, should decide the speed at which the process evolves.

This new era requires that the supplier changes too; building a new skills base with people experienced in connectivity and data, so that the outcome is an improvement and not a further complication to an already complex business.

We are also aware that with greater connectivity and more data transfer comes an increased security risk, which must be managed.

Our approach is to build a cyber infrastructure which is capable of maintaining more than just an ‘air gap’ between the ship’s network and the front of bridge navigation system. This Secure Maritime Gateway will go into live testing by the fourth quarter of 2018 and promises to provide a robust component of a layered cyber security strategy.

This approach to digitalisation could be viewed as small steps in the right direction but it is critical that the strategy actually provides tangible results, not innovations in search of a business model. By building a platform that can be used to deliver services as well as systems we will be able to make giant leaps too.

It also reflects the fact that our service engineers are present on the bridge; we see how customers use our products and hear first-hand about the improvements and enhancements they want to see.

That gives us a unique perspective on how to create new services that meet these changing needs. For a company that has long been the go-to for radar, ECDIS, gyrocompass or autopilot – but which would always leave the operations to the shipowner – this is a completely new approach.

History and heritage are not enough to protect anyone from the challenge of digitalisation, but change need not be a threat to survival. Instead, it enables much closer dialogue on how we can support customer operations and deliver real digital value, rather than create disruption for its own sake.

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