Technology journeys and finding the right spanner

Back when I was a Cadet on chemical tankers the 12” adjustable spanner or “shifter” (derived from “skiftnyckel” in case you were wondering) was the most valuable tool I possessed. As Chief Officer it was important to master a loading computer (early versions powered by donkeys or steam).  Once in command neither featured as much in my day to day life, but a desktop computer appeared. Whilst the computer offered an obvious opportunity to be better at a Captain’s administrative functions it did sit there in the office looking new, intimidating and definitely not amenable to 12” spanner adjustment. Amidst wistful recollections of getting something to work if you hit it hard enough this new piece of technology caused some self-assessment. I embarked on retraining and gained a qualification in Computer Literacy and Information Technology on my next leave.

Old spanners

The reason I am sharing this old technology journey with you is I think there are some lessons here.  If we really are interested in being better at something, then yesterday’s tools may not help us. New tools can, but we will have to assess ourselves and learn how to use them if we don’t know how.  I am sure that will resonate with many of you and whilst it is true for an individual it is also true for larger organisations and systems.  Committing to being better, having the mindset to positively but critically self-assess, and embracing new tools and ways of working are important steps on the road to success.   Even if we advance in small steps we should still be encouraged because what might look like modest incremental improvements at an individual level can generate significant value at scale. We’ve  probably all seen this demonstrated many times.

At the leading edge shipping is changing rapidly.  This is not disruption, but the accelerated digitally enabled evolution of business processes and technology.  The changes which result are logical consequences, even if they challenge existing business models and processes and some feel disrupted.  The difference between evolution and revolution is important as we are more likely to accept the former and resist the latter.  Looking at the rapidly developing digital landscape with a 12” spanner mindset will not be comfortable, but there is an amazing opportunity to self-assess and select the new tools which will generate better results.

New spanners

Almost five years ago I wrote a list of what I thought would be important for evaluating voyage management tools before reviewing a number of providers.  The list drew on several years of prior experience working with teams in large fleet operations to deliver efficiencies through organisation and process restructuring.  Back then it was already apparent digitalisation with its increased transparency of operations and connectivity between ship and shore would transform the way the industry works.  It was just a question of when and how, not if! 

So let’s talk about the “spanner” I was looking for.  I identified sixteen desirable voyage management system characteristics and scored each solution on offer from 1 to 10; with 1 being the least represented and 10 being fully represented.  In hindsight I could have weighted their importance too, but left that open and simply identified the extent to which each characteristic was represented in the solution under scrutiny: 

Cloud

Points were awarded if the solution was cloud based, updates did not involve the ship, the functionality was accessible when offline and the solution was secure. Some of the reasons for this approach were the avoidance of hardware onboard tieing the company to a particular provider and the optimisation of communications.

Mobility

Given the 24/7/365 nature of shipping the solution needed to be accessible on any platform with access to the internet.  In some respects this was also intended to address the needs of those needing flexibility in where and when they worked.  

With the COVID19 environment we find ourselves in today this one looks like a winner.

Connectivity

Here the solution was graded on its ability to interface with other systems and solutions via API.  

Even enterprise systems can fail in this respect and when we consider external interfaces the situation can be very much worse.  A significant reduction in the manual re-entry of the same data across systems was desirable.  Activity is not always productivity!

Configurability over time would be necessary as technology and business needs moved on.

It was also anticipated a “one size fits all” solution would not be available and in some respects was not desirable. Who wants to be the same as everyone else?  

Another connectivity positive I was looking for was the ability to buy a data source once and use many times rather than the reverse!  

MRV compliance and EEDI compliance

These two regulatory requirements (not in force at the time) were good examples of a burden which applies to everyone and where there is no commercial advantage. This should therefore be an area the ship should spend no more time than absolutely necessary on. The solution gained points for the extent to which it made regulatory reporting easier.

Fleet view

Does the solution provide a fleet view on a map and, if so what does it deliver? Fleet views vary between those which deliver a simple dot on a map, good for an office lobby, and those which contain varied layers of voyage context and alerts relevant to a particular viewers function.

Operator view

Under this heading I was assessing the solution’s ability to segregate fleet by function, region, etc; the ease of applying user configurable access controls to varied data suites for users and providing relevant views to internal and external stakeholders.

Voyage efficiency

The solution needed to improve the quality and scope of operational voyage planning, monitoring and reporting across the user base and move the company towards more exception based interventions.  

Constantly monitoring everything manually is another example where activity does not always represent productivity, but there needs to be sufficient confidence in the automated aspects to permit a company to move away from that regime.  As not all voyages are alike users would need to set up voyage parameters themselves to gain that confidence.

Technical management

The quality and scope of engineering monitoring and reporting including the ability to provide early indications of interventions required for main propulsion, auxiliary machinery, hull and propeller were assessed.

This aspect was often under-represented in many of the solutions in the marketplace at the time and/or was siloed elsewhere e.g. in a technical manager’s office, but relevant to performance, efficiency, asset availability and voyage success.  The ambition was to make sure engineering performance was contextualised within the overall voyage leading to better decisions.

Sensor scalability

Mixed fleets would have varying abilities to collect data automatically, but the trend was seen as one that would only increase over time and the adopted solution would need to accommodate a range of manual and automated inputs.  

Mapping and encouraging the transition would also be essential because if the increased data requirement for sophisticated analytics was fulfilled by someone on a ship running around to get it then we would be distracting the crews to the detriment of safe and efficient operations.

Dynamic data

Available in some products at the time; roll, pitch and yaw data in near real time would assist the development of more sophisticated performance models and use cases and perhaps even dynamic stress modelling in time.

In an environment where sea trial data was often the starting point for many performance monitoring solutions this appeared a logical, if not essential, step to anticipate.

Tracking

Seen 5 years ago as an example of a service purchased many times and used once or not at all!  Those that were using it back then had limited use cases and it was yet another icon on an already congested desktop which didn’t deliver much value. Whilst AIS based solutions were assessed as adequate for a number of analytics and voyage monitoring activities it suffered from a lack of granularity and results based on voluntary field completion had to be treated with some caution.  Evaluated for source and frequency of position information.

Today the use cases for AIS data and the value they generate have expanded enormously.  Some of the latency concerns have been addressed, but alternatives need to be available.  Navigators are instructed not to rely on a single position source and to cross-reference.  There is no reason to do anything different here.     

Weather and current

Reviewed primarily for source, quality of weather data and inclusion/optimisation of currents.  Weather information was included in a number of solutions so risks being another example of data purchased many times and used once or not at all.  Applying a single feed across use cases if possible would be beneficial.  Valuable when integrated in a sophisticated voyage planning, fuel efficiency and reporting package with demonstrable benefits.

Security

Looking for a comprehensive integrated or integratable component to monitor voyages in risk areas with enhanced features such as geofenced tracks and auto alerting for unexpected deviations and SSAS management.

User defined alerts

In addition to the solution configurability discussed above, this section focussed on the ability for the user to set parameters for the voyage relevant to their function.  Voyage alerts set by one function might be made visible to others so a complete picture would be visible to those with overall responsibility and all functions would be working from the same information base.  

Reporting

Rated on the quality of analytics and reports.  Graphic displays and dashboards delivering insight rather than raw data with the ability to demonstrate increases and loss of value.

Cost

Evaluation of pricing model resolved to cost per ship per month for comparison, but recognising different models might be offered or appropriate e.g. discounted but with efficiency gain sharing.

The right spanner

In the end and as expected, no provider evaluated scored highly in every box and the offer which scored best provided the flexibility and forward capability considered essential in a rapidly developing environment.

The adoption rates for connectivity driven technology solutions have not been as fast as I expected over the last decade but are certainly growing rapidly now.  There remain many issues for the industry to address within and beyond the digitalisation and automation agenda; cyber security and decarbonisation are just two examples.  COVID 19 has thrown a disruptive spanner in the machine which will almost certainly generate successes as well as failures, but has increased focus on remote solution adoption. 

Working with a company focused on providing services for shipping has given me this opportunity to reflect on the evaluation criteria and their relevance today.  Let me know whether I selected the right criteria five years ago, how closely your own business systems meet those criteria and, if you are interested, talk to me about what we are doing and where we should be going.

The great thing about the future is none of us have a handle on it, but the more we agree on a vision for it, the more likely it will be so. In this environment, rather than looking for a spanner, it might be better to have access to a tool box!

Stay safe.

About StratumFive: For more than a decade StratumFive has been delivering leading cost-effective voyage monitoring solutions and now provides services to more than 12,000 ships through its global network, which includes the FleetWeather operations centre in the USA and its 50 year history of service excellence.

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