Keep an eye to the telescope for a smarter shipping industry

Kirsi Tikka, executive vice president at class society ABS, sets the scene for this week’s Nor-Shipping in this exclusive article for Splash.

As the shipping industry gathers once again for a week of debate and networking, there is a growing sense that the shipping markets have turned a corner. A better first quarter for some sectors, lifted by positive global demand is good news for owners who have spent the best part of a decade battling the slump.

The stage is set it seems for a safe and smooth passage to an era of smarter shipping, marked by new technology, new business models and new entrants. Such a view is a breath of fresh air for shipping – and an injection of new ideas is something to be welcomed, up to a point.

But while the market is thinking in terms of a turnaround, the fundamentals suggest the ‘new normal’ of the post-financial crisis has some way to run. That could mean that major changes to the way assets are designed and built could take longer to come to fruition than many people would like.

Unfortunately we don’t seem able to reconcile our wishes with that reality. At event after event and in one news article after another, we hear about technology disruption of shipping or digital disruptions to its business models.

This focus means we are getting a distorted perspective on its importance in global terms. And excessive focus on new technologies presents a risk that the industry will take the eye off the quality and safety issues that still present challenges in the day to day activities. Despite appearances, the majority of the industry is not talking about autonomous ships or disruptive technologies in a near term context.

They are looking at how to navigate the changes that digitalisation brings as just one element of the future, alongside the impact of regulation, the need for greater efficiency and sustainable profitability.

The trouble is there are no magic bullets to the problems we have constructed over the last decade, only engineering solutions which take time and resources to manage.

This creates a chicken-and-egg scenario in which the market often does not always reward the first-movers and the early adopters are not necessarily the ones to benefit if others fail to adopt the concepts too.

For any smart shipping innovation, there has to be demonstrable payback before owners will invest in large numbers in new technologies. For some concepts, the payback horizon requires not just very deep pockets but faith too.

Consider the argument for alternative fuels. With the coming SOx cap in 2020, EU MRV and IMO action on CO2, owners know they need to consider alternatives.

ABS has helped to demonstrate that LNG as fuel is viable for large ocean-going ships. But when owners are weighing up the necessary investment, there is often hesitation to go all-in with additional costs. There are exceptions and there would be more, if the ‘price was right’.

Scale that up to the subject of a fully autonomous ship and the ultimate cost savings have to be weighed against what remain huge uncertainties – and not just technical ones.

The challenge is to better understand these issues which is what the numerous research projects already in progress are trying to do – thinking seriously about what functions can be safely transferred to shore-based control so we can design the process of remote asset monitoring with a realistic time horizon in mind.

Vessel performance and condition monitoring are important concepts, however, they are transition technologies that lead us to remote maintenance and then to remote decision-making. New concepts offer solutions but we still have challenges – even with traditional technology.

Part of the problem is that, we design and certify components, not systems, so when we introduce new technology to navigation, the main engine, rudders and propellers, we can create unintended consequences. If this is the case with more conventional technology, we need to take a step back and make sure that we can manage the implementation of disruptive technology.

Smart shipping is a transition, not an end state, a continuous journey that will see us adopting systems and approaches that will evolve further over time. Yes, there will be disruption along the way, but we should play a practical role in, providing the framework that allows us to navigate the change safely and sustainably, without hindering innovation that will make ships simpler to operate, onboard or remotely. Doing so will give us a bigger and more positive stake in the outcome.


Splash will be bringing daily updates from Nor-Shipping all week.

Back to top button