Maritime slowwlllyyyy enters the 21st century

Mar 7, 2019 | Hot Topics

Many of you may know that I’m a naval architect by training and, despite a career more related to software than ships, I’m still part of a proud seafaring tradition. Building and operating ships is fascinating! And, lately, it’s coming up more and more often in my software-centered world.

Part of this is due to connectivity and the Internet of Things. Ships are really big Things, with lots of systems that could be well-served by data analytics. Too, regulations around emissions and a drive for fuel efficiency are putting outside forces on a system that’s typically very slow to change.

That connectivity can extend beyond the ship, to the system of ships and associated devices that make up a working port. How many ships, barges, tugs, cranes, trucks, and other pieces of equipment are in the Port of New York at any given time? I don’t know, but it’s got to easily be in the thousands and keeping track of them all is a nightmare.

I recently spoke with someone about port operations, and here’s what I learned: Yes, the port needs to be safe for humans and the cargo that is the point of all of this activity. But, even more, it needs to be efficient. Efficient means that everyone and everything is where it is supposed to be, which improves safety, since randomness leads to workplace incidents. And efficiency creates economic advantage that leads more shippers to use the port. My contact is looking at all sorts of technologies that can simplify the processes a ship operator goes through to book a pilot (the expert who guides a huge ship into the correct pier through the crowded port), schedule fueling, set up customs and other inspections, deal with crew rotations and certifications it’s hugely complicated.

Now extend that view outwards. If we can have autonomous cars, why not ships? Autonomous ferries have been successfully trialled in Norway, and Rolls-Royce has demonstrators of really cool combinations of autonomous and remote operations – check out this video:

To get to this vision, we need a far more digital ship than we currently have, one that fully understands its surroundings. How do we get there?

It all starts with, forgive me, naval architecture the design of the ship and its systems. When I was in school, naval architects were usually independent firms, making designs for ship owners and working with the building yards. Today, many shipyards have in-house naval architect and design teams, who bridge the gap between the owner and yard and answer, is what we design, manufacturable?

Many of these yards are very old, trying to shoehorn new technologies into spaces that have been in more or less constant use for hundreds of years. They don’t have the ability to build a new production facility in a greenfield location; they typically have to rework an existing facility when there’s money and time to do so. And when there’s time, there’s no money (because the yard is too idle to make a profit) and when there’s money, there’s no time (because everyone is too busy on yard business).

That’s true of every business, of course, not just shipbuilding. But this cycle of feast and famine has created an industry that’s behind on technology adoption. Just a few of the technologies to consider:

  • Generative design of the hull, yes, but also of propeller blades, structural components and in overall system optimizations
  • 3D printing of replacements parts (at sea or in port), of complex curvature parts in initial construction, of small-scale test concepts
  • Laser scanning of the yard and production lines, to know what’s where and to have a realistic view for future planning. But also of completion progress, to check for appropriate fit, to iterate on design changes
  • Factory optimization tools Eli Goldratt’s The Goal can be applied to shipyards, too. Where are the bottlenecks? What can be made more efficient, and will that help or hurt the entirety?
  • CAD not just for the sake of the 3D model, which can feed interference detection, bills of material and so many other traditional uses, but for all of the newer opportunities it provides. Not to be exhaustive, but we can use the CAD model to communicate with the owner or classification society and other stakeholders. To train tradespeople in construction processes and techniques, and ship operations personnel and to seek their input on potential changes. To create augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) toolsets for a better understanding of the vessel. To serve as the basis for a digital twin, should that prove of value (and I think it is, but that’s another blog post)
  • Analytics most ships are already highly automated to minimize onboard crew and to keep these massive power plants operating safely. But as is true in most industries, that data is used in the moment and then, generally, relegated to a data historian. It should also be used for maintenance forecasting and planning, to fine-tune operations for fuel quality and weather, to assess crew tiredness or capability, to prepare for port repairs or other work at greater levels of detail … So many possibilities without adding any more sensors.

I could keep going but you get the idea. Rather than continue to list technologies, consider this:

The title image of this post is of the Steam Ship Bremen, built by my grandfather’s shipyard in 1928. Family lore says that she was the most advanced passenger ship of her day, and her speed and efficiency led to competitive innovation among builders and owners in the 1930s. My grandfather built ships the old-fashioned way, by system rather than by block (smaller geographic units – a huge innovation of the 1960s), but many of the other techniques are remarkably similar.

Shipbuilding is a hybrid industry, a cross between AEC and manufacturing. Ships are typically more customized than not (AEC), but yards have the ability to industrialize some processes in dedicated facilities (manufacturing). We can set up dedicated welding lines, build modules or entire blocks indoors and offsite, and adopt technologies that control inventories, changes and processes — all of which would set shipbuilders up for more repeatable success. We can’t control demand for new ships, but we can build more effectively and set those ships up for success in a more digital world.

I would argue that it’s never a good time, and that there’s never the right amount of money floating around. But now feels like the right time to pick a process that’s not as efficient as one would like, and fix it. Then another and another. Shipyards, what are you waiting for?

And if you’re not a shipbuilder, what are you waiting for? You, too, should be looking at these technologies and thinking about the impact they could have on your business.