Editorial: Improving automation

Ship owners have traditionally paid scant regard for the automation basics that will enable technology-driven gains Ship owners have traditionally paid scant regard for the automation basics that will enable technology-driven gains

Ship operators must strengthen their focus on automation basics if they are to reap the rewards of technological advances, writes The Motorship editor Gavin Lipsith.

How much care do shipowners generally give to automation? It speaks volumes that one company, giving a checklist to owners before they consult with ship designers on a new vessel, offers such basic advice as ‘keep spare batteries onboard’. It seems obvious, but if the battery of a programmable logic controller in your propeller control unit dies, a blackout could leave a ship immobilised until software is reinstalled and parameters are reset.

Owners can specify equipment down to component level, choosing cargo pumps by brand, for example. But rarely will they specify that pump controls should play nicely with their power management systems. So it’s no surprise that shipyards too can view automation, and how onboard systems will be integrated, as an afterthought.

It’s a view that must change as automation encompasses ever greater spheres of ship operations. The engine cannot today be viewed in isolation from its electronic controls or power management. Those connections will become more important as ship owners consider multi-fuel operation. Managing loads between fuel cells, solar panels, batteries and diesel gensets, for example, will make properly integrated automation critical.

A more considered approach will also be vital to reaping the benefits of ‘big data’ analytics. More and more companies are offering industrial internet platforms enabling operators to mine sensor data for insights to improve vessel efficiency and fleet profitability. Large liners and cruise operators, including Maersk and Carnival Corp, are already doing so. Predictive maintenance is a worthy goal. But the long-term view is much deeper.

Data analytics will redefine the way ships are built. Layering real-time and historic sensor information over digital ship models will allow unprecedented insight into how vessels behave. According to Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, CEO of DNV GL Maritime, speaking at the launch of the class society’s own industrial internet platform Veracity, the established development cycle of class rules – status quo, incident, refinement – will be dramatically accelerated.

Ultimately the way rules are made will need to adapt, allowing greater flexibility in ship design as data draw a more complete virtual model of vessels. Recent moves towards goal-based rather than prescriptive rules are a first step in this direction.

It’s a view of the future that promises to be both challenging and rewarding. But without a more disciplined approach to automation ship owners and operators will not maximise their returns from these advances.

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