​2020 heralds what will be an interesting decade of progress for shipping

January 1st saw the shipping industry take bold steps in improving its environmental credentials with the introduction of the IMO 2020 sulphur cap. In preparing for the sulphur cap, shipping has enacted major changes to the way it operates; this is a piece of regulation that has had far-reaching consequences for nearly every aspect of shipping. While it might be tempting to greet the new year and decade with a sigh of relief, the reality is that this shift is only the start of bigger things to come. Looking further down the line, shipping needs to reduce carbon, and quickly, cutting emissions by 50% from 2008 levels by 2050. This coincides with an acceleration of technology adoption in the shipping sector. Over $1bn was invested in technology companies working in the maritime sector in 2019 according to a new report from UK consultancy Thetius. On one hand, this represents an opportunity for shipping; an influx of new technology can only be a good thing in the face of this pressure to decarbonise. However, it also creates new demands on crews, shore-based teams, shipyards, designers and owners. To fully take advantage of this new wave of digital investment, we need to look to the foundations of where and how we get our data. We need to look more closely at marine automation.

New decade for the digital revolution in shipping

Ships are inherently complex, comprising intricate systems, each with their own control and automation system that work together in order to enable fundamental operations. Systems such as power management, cargo handling, alarm management and safety systems are all integral to the safe operation of a vessel. They also create large amounts of useful data on all aspects of vessel operations.

To help distil down this complex electronic information traffic flow and support the crew in managing the ship, integrated automation systems can harness this complicated information exchange and put it at the fingertips of the crew.

However, the widespread industry thinking about automation is relatively immature. It is common to find unintegrated, disjointed and clunky systems on board vessels. If the industry is going to be taking a more mature approach to its environmental agenda, it needs to get a little more serious. In electric vessels, there are several electrical systems that must come together, an integrating their command and control systems has the potential to make a significant impact in supporting efficient operations.

Better automation isn’t an off-the-shelf solution. To bring systems together in a way that can truly bring optimum vessel performance requires deep knowledge about the systems alongside a methodical way of thinking about how to bring them together in a way that can bring real benefits to the ship, crew and owners.

The next steps in the road to digitalisation

So how will we get to creating a more modern industry approach to automation and improved data use?

One approach is by improving collaboration. Data and digitalisation is slowly starting to become a new way of thinking in the industry, and multiple disciplines will need to come together in order to generate widespread automation and data exploitation. For example, ship owners will need to be more stringent in demanding that automation and control systems on vessels allow easy access to data. Furthermore, akin to other industries, a ‘data logistics chain’ – extracting, transmitting, receiving processing and refining data to make it a truly valuable asset.

Høglund’s recent collaboration with classification society DNV GL is an example of different parties combining expertise for the purposes of improved data. To keep the momentum going, naval architects, shipbuilders, ship managers and owners will all need to raise their collective voices to cause a step-change in improving automation, and data use.

The ground is right for taking the next steps in the digital revolution for shipping, but it needs to wake up to what is needed. It is a complex change to make, but with collaboration and dialogue, the benefits will be self-evident and change will occur.